The specialty crop industry, including fruits, nuts, vegetables and greenhouse and nursery crops, opposes extending the current farm program, preferring a more trade-oriented approach.

“I realize I am in the minority on my point of view,” said Dennis Holbrook, Mission, Texas, citrus grower, during testimony at a recent Senate agriculture committee hearing in Lubbock.

“By most accounts the current farm bill has worked well in general for the program crops,” said Holbrook, who was representing Texas Citrus Mutual and the Texas Produce Association as well as national specialty crop interests. “That is not the case for specialty crops. We do not receive benefits equal to our part of the agricultural economy.”

He said bringing the specialty crop industry into the farm bill process will generate support from more sectors of society. “The food and nutrition provisions we recommend have broad support from consumer, health professional and anti-hunger groups.”

Holbrook said the specialty crop industry plays a critical role in the U.S. agriculture economy and “deserves full and equal consideration…in the farm bill.”

He said direct payments will not serve his industry and recommends programs that emphasize “long-term competitiveness and sustainability of U.S. specialty crop production.”

Holbrook said the dietary guidelines for 2005 called for doubling the fruit and vegetable consumption to address obesity and health issues. “Strong support for the fruit and vegetable industry in the farm bill is going to be necessary to achieve this goal,” he said.

He said fruit and vegetables play a critical role in the export market. “We need to remove trade barriers that threaten to limit growth of the export market.” Fresh and processed fruit, vegetables and tree nuts make up 40 percent of the projected growth in horticultural export growth for 2007.

“U.S. fruit and vegetable production accounts for 30 percent of cash receipts for crops, and with nursery and greenhouse production the figure is 44 percent.”

He’s also concerned about threats from devastating citrus pests, already infesting groves in Florida, Mexico and other areas close to the Texas border. He said citrus greening and citrus canker pose particularly serious problems and may result in removal of large numbers of trees.

“Prevention is by far the most economical solution to these diseases. We call on Congress to support an effort by APHIS to prioritize foreign pest threats to domestic production of specialty crops.”

He said if exclusion is not effective, Congress should make Commodity Credit Corporation funds available to conduct emergency eradication.

Holbrook said removal of restrictions on planting flexibility, demanded by a recent WTO ruling against the U.S. cotton program, would hurt fruit and vegetable producers by increasing acreage of crops already sensitive to minute supply fluctuations.

“If this provision is taken away we feel other assurances must be made to maintain a level playing field for specialty crop growers.”

Immigration reform also threatens stability of the fruit and vegetable industry. “A large number of undocumented or improperly documented workers” currently provide labor for harvesting and processing fruit and vegetables. No one willfully uses undocumented workers but it is difficult for us to know if documents are real or fake.”

Holbrook said Rio Grande Valley producers noted a limited “but serious worker shortage last spring,” because workers were afraid of strict immigration enforcement.

“Lack of labor plus reduced product availability equals higher cots to the nation’s consumers. An enforcement-only policy will be devastating to the Texas and U.S. produce industry as well as disrupting to the food supply channels of our nation.”

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com