At Last, Some Respect for Fruits and Veggies

Specialty growers are likely to get more goodies from the farm bill.

Workers harvest celery at a commercial farm near Los Angeles. Vegetable prices have been rising.

Workers harvest celery at a commercial farm near Los Angeles. Vegetable prices have been rising.

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Since early 2007, Congress has been working to renew a sweeping farm bill that provides billions of dollars of funding for agricultural programs. It's a ritual that gets repeated about every five years, and its main beneficiaries are usually the same: farmers who grow corn, wheat, and other commodity crops, and who are paid for doing so, and low-income people on food stamps.

But that club is about to get a new member. Although the content of the final bill, now making its final way through Congress, remains uncertain, individuals familiar with the negotiations say this time fruit and vegetable industries are likely to receive up to several billion dollars of indirect aid, including a big boost for school snack programs. If they do, it would be one of the most significant shifts in food policy in years.

Some analysts have applauded rising grain prices by calling this the "Golden Age of Farming." But while crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans are selling at record levels, they account for only a portion of the value of all U.S. crops. A slightly bigger chunk comes from fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which traditionally receive almost no federal subsidies and significantly less support for marketing.

Two growing problems underscore the need to narrow the disparity in funding, observers say. The first is the growing danger to crops. In California, a new pest, the light brown apple moth, recently fluttered into the state from Australia. Officials have estimated that an infestation would cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, decimating everything from avocados to oranges. Forebodingly, the moth was spotted in wine-rich Sonoma County last month; authorities plan to spend $75 million this summer dumping pesticides to eradicate it.

California has company in its misery. "With trade barriers lifted and global trade increasing," says Florida Department of Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy, "our office is getting reports of at least one new pest or disease of significant economic concern per month." Warmer temperatures also create more fertile conditions for breeding.

The second concern is public health. Although prices for bread and baked goods have inched up, the increases have been relatively recent. Not so with fruits and vegetables: On average, their price rose 40 percent from 1985 to 2000. A University of Washington study, released in December, found that the price of low-calorie foods, such as fruits and vegetables, jumped nearly 20 percent from 2004 to 2006, whereas high-calorie items, including candy, actually dropped in price, making them even more palatable to consumers.

Vulnerabilities. Historically, states have paid for specialty crop costs, such as for marketing products and developing new technology, with only modest help from Washington. The amount of support has paled in comparison with the yearly handouts to grain growers, arguably leaving vulnerabilities. "We're now seeing double, triple the incursion rate of pests," says California Rep. Dennis Cardoza. "To tackle these problems, it's got to be the federal government doing the research."

On Capitol Hill, the lobby representing midwestern grain producers has long held sway; fruit and vegetable interests have typically been drowned out. This year, though, more than 120 industries, from almond farmers to citrus growers, have formed a coalition to deliver the message that fruits and vegetables are vital to public health.

The strategy seems to be paying off. "It opened a lot of doors that were not necessarily open during the last farm bill debate," says Robert Guenther, a senior vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association, a member of the lobby. "It allowed us to go into more urban and suburban offices and address issues related to schools."

One hopeful sign: The Senate's bill, passed in December, would allocate $2.2 billion for specialty crop programs, including $225 million annually to expand a program that provides fruits and vegetables to public schools. By contrast, only $6 million was allotted for the effort when the Farm Bill was renewed in 2002.