The nation's fruit and vegetable sector “must receive significantly greater attention in future farm policy,” Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association said at a House Agriculture Committee hearing.

His organization was one of 15 participating in the committee's series of hearings aimed at evaluating the current state of the nation's agricultural economy as a prelude to development of a new farm bill.

Stenzel presented 50 legislative recommendations covering 11 key issues developed by United's Farm Bill Working Group, composed of 40 industry members representing 24 produce organizations from every fruit and vegetable producing region in the U.S.

For decades, he told the committee, the produce industry has made tremendous changes in an effort to stay profitable, satisfy consumer demands, adapt to new technology, and compete in an increasingly global marketplace.

“Yet, today growers are facing the lowest returns they've seen in decades,” Stenzel said. “Wholesalers and distributors are being squeezed at both ends, while retailers and restaurants are facing stiffer marketplace competition than ever. The consumption of commodity after commodity seems to be stagnating.”

Despite the perishable nature of its products and highly volatile markets, he noted that the industry “has not relied on traditional farm programs to sustain our business — we're proud of our commitment to free markets, and don't want that to change.”

The produce industry, Stenzel said, “strongly supports” the development of farm policies that will improve its financial viability. “This will require appropriate flexibility for our producers, and ultimately, policies that promote consumption and demand for our agricultural products, rather than programs that distort the free marketplace or insulate producers from market signals.”

United's proposal calls for a $3.58 billion basket of policies that would drive consumer demand for produce while providing a menu of options that growers could use to strengthen their current economic condition, Stenzel said. Some of them are:

  • $700 million in conservation investment, allowing for increased participation by produce growers.

  • $2.55 billion in nutrition priorities that can be utilized to increase the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables and help Americans reach national health goals.

  • $163 million of increased investment toward international market access and food aid programs.

  • $50 million in plant and pest disease eradication efforts.

  • $34.1 million in new research priorities to target promotion of produce consumption and competitive prominence.

The produce industry's Farm Bill Working Group supports the position, Stenzel said, that federal farm policy should be developed that insures good producers are not put out of business due to forces beyond their control.

“Congress should utilize the farm bill to allocate funding that insures the produce industry receives a proportionate share of outlays for our industry's program priorities,” he said.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, said “we want to produce a farm policy that is the best possible solution for the economic conditions facing producers today; our members are dedicated to the American farmer, and I'm confident we will find a solution that will sustain a strong and vital agricultural sector.”

e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com