USDA to retain fruit and vegetable program

WASHINGTON -- Central Valley fruit and vegetable growers have won a small but symbolic victory as the Obama administration starts steering the Agriculture Department in a new direction.

Facing political heat from California lawmakers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has agreed to retain $3.18 million in a grant program that encourages fruit and vegetable consumption. The decision reverses a move made quietly in the dying days of the Bush administration. It also gives a little taste of how Washington works.

"We raised holy heck about it," Robert Guenther, vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said Tuesday when asked about how the Agriculture Department's original decision got reversed.

The Bush administration had wanted to spend the $3.18 million implementing a country of origin labeling program. Vilsack decided, instead, to return the money to a specialty crop block grant program. Though the dollar amounts are modest, the former Iowa governor stressed he's sending a signal.

"It is clear, from what President Obama has indicated to me, that he wants this department to promote nutrition through the use of healthy fruits and vegetables," Vilsack said Monday.

The money at stake is part of a specialty crop block grant program, recently expanded under the five-year farm bill completed last year. Fruit and vegetable growers in states like California and Florida considered this block grant expansion, to $466 million over 10 years, one of their big successes in the overall farm bill debate.

Every state gets some of the money, but states with lots of fruit and vegetable production get more.

For instance, University of California at Davis researchers have used past specialty crop block grant dollars to fund work on the "ecological footprint" of walnut orchards. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance received funding for studies of greenhouse gas emissions. The California School Nutrition Foundation received money to establish salad bars in 40 California schools.

"We think that when block grant money is spent well, it can be very beneficial," said Jack King, manager of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Some skeptics even among farm lobbyists question the overall effectiveness of the block grants, but they enjoy influential political support. Nonetheless, during the Christmas holiday period, the outgoing Bush administration announced it was taking the $3.18 million for help with putting country of origin labeling into place.

After much delay, the final labeling rules take effect March 16. The labeling requirements cover meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and more. The Agriculture Department will need funds to administer the rules, which include potential fines for violators. Separately, industry will spend an estimated $2.6 billion in the first year to put labels and maintain records.

Bush administration officials said they would use the money lifted from the specialty crop program for a retail survey, training, auditing and the hiring of temporary workers. Lawmakers and industry leaders erupted, once they found out what happened.

"This action has significantly eroded the trust built up through our joint work on the 2008 farm bill," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, wrote then-Agriculture Secretary Ed Shafter on Jan. 7.

Cardoza chairs the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee. Other lawmakers who share specialty crop interests weighed in as well. The chair of the House agriculture appropriations panel, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Monterey, got involved. Congressional staffers began calling around to complain, and farm lobbyists made sure the Obama administration's incoming farm transition team knew what all the fuss was about.