Last year around this time I was in Nashville at the Commodity Classic listening to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack rail on how we desperately need a new farm bill. At that time there looked to be hope, as the Senate, led by Michigan's own Sen. Debbie Stabenow, was making strides to develop a program that gave farmers tools to reduce risk, increase trade opportunities, protect the environment and grow yields for both food and bio-products.
Most of you know the story. The Senate did pass what most ag groups were hailing as a very acceptable bill, but the House, with all its partisanship and political wrangling, effectively killed it by doing nothing. The best the legislature could do, in the waning hours of 2012, was pass a band aid by extending the existing farm bill.
So it appears that everything is status quo… at least for now, correct? The extension of the 2008 farm bill leaves most everything in place, whether you agree with some of the support programs or not. The key word in that last sentence is "most."
What we did lose in the extension was funding for key specialty crop priorities that did not have a baseline in the budget. In Michigan, where farmers grow with more than 200 different commodities, that's a big deal. Particularly devastating is the loss of dollars for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative. The program is known by the acronym SCRI and includes multi-state research projects. It was authorized at $100 million over 10 years but is not funded in the new bill.
That means there is no funding for research on stuff like the brown marmorated stink bug. This critter may potentially cripple fruit and vegetable growers as it shows no preference to one particular fruit or vegetable – sucking each one dry of water, protein and carbohydrates.
The stink bug is native to China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, but probably hitched a ride in a crate of something and made its way into the United States in September 1998. It has already devastated many mid-Atlantic crops. Diane Smith, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee says, "It damages apples, peaches, pears – it really doesn't care what it's consuming." The bug has been found in eight counties in Michigan and even our harsh winters won't kill it off because it overwinters in homes.
~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~Now, without farm bill funding, researchers are losing valuable time in finding a solution to exterminate or at least control the bug, halting the work of USDA Researcher Dr. Tracy Leskey and many others. "The impact on those types of programs and research are certainly not moving us forward, only pushing us back," Smith says.
The Senate-passed farm bill was favorable to SCRI, but without a House vote, it's unlikely the program will see any dollars this year, although some hope a place-holder for funding in the future will be established.
The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance -- a national coalition of more than 120 organizations representing growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts, nursery plants and other products -- expressed disappointment with the Farm Bill extension's exclusion of specialty crop priorities, but vowed to continue to communicate the importance of specialty crop programs to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Smith says she's not sure how they will proceed moving forward, but Michigan Apple Committee will continue to fund research at Michigan State University, albeit a drop in the bucket to what was normally leveraged through the national coffers.
It's a double whammy for Michigan apple growers, who lost their entire apple crop to relentless and uncharacteristic warming and freezing pattern in the spring of 2012.
However, Smith says growers are forever optimistic. "We're happy to put 2012 in our rear view mirror. It did bring us together with other industries, including the low interest programs and opportunities available to growers. These growers are amazing and they have the best attitudes. We have well-rested trees, and growers are anticipating a great crop, and are making marketing plans, strategically planning and looking at how we can move the industry forward -- growers, shippers, packers and processors. The 2012 crop gave us a broad look at the industry and the opportunity to refine and refocus our goals for the future."