Continuing a series of oversight hearings on government spending,the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture met in early July to scrutinize specialty crop programs. Topics covered included invasive species research, pesticide use reports, and the ability of U.S. farmers markets to handle EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) transactions.

Federal regulation of pesticides has been a hot-button issue for years. Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt, who chairs the subcommittee, asked what conclusions were drawn from the annual Pesticide Data Program report released this spring.

“It’s an important report because it shows the historical trends in terms pesticide use throughout the United States,” said Rayne Pegg, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). “It looks at pesticide usage for all the different commodities primarily consumed in the marketplace.”

For more, see witness written testimony.  

“It is indicating that we’re seeing pesticide use, over time, (declining),” continued Pegg. “There’s a change in trends regarding pesticide use – producers are moving to ‘softer’ chemicals.

“The annual report also shows pesticide residues found on foods tested at levels below tolerances established by EPA.”

Not only does the pesticide report “help inform EPA in terms of trends in (pesticide) usage but it is also used in discussions with foreign countries when they ask about pesticide usage for various commodities to set maximum residue limits,” said Pegg.

Food stamps/farmers markets

California Rep. Joe Baca, ranking member of the subcommittee, asked for an update on efforts by the AMS and  Food and Nutritional Services (FNS) to ensure farmers markets accept food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, through EBT transactions.

“This is an important topic – one that both my agency and Food and Nutritional Services have been working on collaboratively to determine the hurdles people are facing in terms of getting more SNAP benefits into farmers markets,” said Pegg.

 “There are a couple of programs working to increase EBT accessibility at farmers markets. That is a Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) … and the grant program provides for 10 percent of the funds. However, in 2010, we saw 30 percent of the dollars in the FMPP go to support EBT transactions.”

The USDA efforts have increased the number of EBTs at farmers markets to 1,600, said Peggwho also referenced a handbook being compiled “to help individual stalls at farmers markets to put in EBT machines, how to administer that effectively, how to make it cost effective. … The handbook provides them additional tools to make it simpler so these things are more accessible in more markets.”

Baca pointed out the 2008 farm bill “established a minimum of 10 percent set aside with FMPP for funds to cover (EBT) equipment. … I understand since adding the set aside to the program, demand for the funds has far exceeded the supply. Are you finding this to be the case?”  

The 2011 numbers are not in yet, said Pegg. However, “we’re hopeful once we review all the applications received on July 1, we’ll see an increase in the number of applicants for those supporting EBT transactions at farmers markets, CSAs (community-supported agriculture), food hubs, and so forth. Various entities across the nation recognize the need for providing this to their constituency. Detroit’s food hub recognized they’re doing $30,000 a month in sales just for food stamp recipients.”

Citrus greening

In Rep. Steve Southerland’s home state of Florida, farmers grow an enormous number of specialty crops. Among the most lucrative are citrus crops, currently under threat from “citrus greening disease.”

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The greening disease “represents an immediate threat to the entire $12.2 billion U.S. citrus industry in Florida, California, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas,” said Southerland. “The disease has the ability to kill citrus trees, and their fruit, within a few, short years. It literally places the future of U.S. citrus production of at risk. Citrus ranks nearly first in the nation in crop value. … Timely research on citrus greening and its vector, the Asian citrus psyllid, is absolutely essential to ensure the future citrus production in this country.

“Congress authored the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) under the farm bill in an effort to meet the critical needs of the specialty crop industry by developing and disseminating science-based tools to address needs of specialty crops.”

Even so, complained Southerland, “domestic citrus growers have self-funded more than $39 million in research annually over the past four years.”

Citrus greening is a “devastating disease,” agreed Rebecca Bech, deputy administrator for Plant Protection and Quarantine at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. While the SCRI is administered under the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) “at APHIS, we have a Citrus Health Response Program. Part of that funding is set aside for research and we’ve worked closely with the (U.S.) growers and industry ... to address the concerns about citrus greening.”

Southerland:No country that has faced (citrus greening) has solved it. It literally wipes out the citrus industry and this is an enormous problem. Having met farmers that are funding (research) – and not getting the assistance I think some of the funds were (intended) to provide – is bothersome.”