Specialty crop research initiative takes hit
By DAN WHEAT
The 2008 Farm Bill extension passed Tuesday includes funding for the Market Access Program and Specialty Crop Block Grants but does not fund the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, Clean Plant Network or Tree Assistance Program, said Diane Kurrle, vice president of public affairs at the U.S. Apple Association.
MAP provides export promotion money for the Washington Apple Commission, Pear Bureau Northwest and many other organizations across the country.
The research initiative is known by the acronym SCRI and includes multi-state research projects, is authorized at $100 million over 10 years but is not funded in the new bill, said Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, in Wenatchee, Wash.
Projects that have already been fully funded, like a four-state stemless cherry research projected headed by Washington State University, are safe, McFerson said.
Washington and Idaho congressional delegations have been supportive of SCRI but it will take hard work to get even a few million dollars, McFerson said.
Kurrle said it's unrealistic to expect any SCRI funding during the one-year Farm Bill extension but that chances of some funding in a new Farm Bill in the future are probably good. Having SCRI included in the extension helps "as kind of a place holder," she said, even though it's not funded.
The Clean Plant Network, to assure rootstock free of pests and diseases for trees and vines, was new in the 2008 Farm Bill, like SCRI, and most likely will get no money in the coming year, Kurrle said. The Tree Assistance Program could be funded as disaster relief, she said.
McFerson noted the Senate passed a Farm Bill favorable to SCRI months ago but that the House would not vote on the Senate version.
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.
"While we are frustrated, we look forward to working with both (Senate and House) committees and dozens of members of Congress who helped complete the 2012 Farm Bill," said John Keeling, alliance co-chair and National Potato Council executive vice president and CEO.
U.S. potato researchers had secured more than $14 million in SCRI funding over the five-year life of the 2008 Farm Bill, Keeling said. The prior farm bill included $150 million overall in mandatory spending on specialty crop research.
Keeling said the specialty crop research funding helped cover work to understand the spread of zebra chip, a new crop disease to Pacific Northwest potato producers. It also funded research on potato virus Y and breeding for low levels of acrylamide, a chemical found in some foods after cooking at high temperatures that may be tied to cancer.
Most of the potato research projects have already been fully funded and have a couple of years of work remaining, Keeling said. But he said research projects the industry had hoped to accomplish in the future, such as enhancing potato nutrition, may have to be placed on hold.
Specialty crops represent about half of U.S. agriculture, according to the alliance.