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Farm Bill Stall Imperils Wine Research

Will lame-duck Congress limp to plate in time to rescue budgets?

by Jane Firstenfeld
Alternative text
Jean-Mari Peltier of the National Grape & Wine Initiative is uncertain what would happen to her organization if the House of Representatives fails to pass the 2012 Farm Bill.
Washington, D.C.—The United States Congress has taken its biennial break and will not reconvene until after the Nov. 6 election. Unfinished business on the table includes the 2012 Farm Bill, of vital importance to the U.S. grape and wine industry as well as thousands of other farmers and agricultural interests.

Approved in June by the U.S. Senate, the 500-plus-page bill stalled in the House of Representatives, in large part because of Tea Party objections to funding for the federal food stamp program included within the Farm Bill.

The 2008 Farm Bill (which overrode a 2007 veto by then-President George W. Bush) provided for programs benefitting the U.S. grape and wine industry, as detailed in in Wines & Vines by Bill Nelson, then chairman of WineAmerica, the industry’s national lobbying association.

The 2008 bill included substantial monies for specialty crops including:
• Specialty Crop Block Grants,
• The National Clean Plant Network,
• Pest and disease management for specialty crops,
• The Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI),
• Organic agriculture research and extension,
• Value-added market development grants,
• Conservation innovation grants (EQIP) and
• The market access program.

Organizations react
The National Grape & Wine Initiative (NGWI), which develops research grant applications for funding, says grape research faces an uncertain future should the 2012 Farm Bill fail. NGWI president Jean-Mari Peltier explained that with an annual budget of less than $50 million, SCRI is not considered to have a “baseline.” Programs without baselines are not continued in a simple Farm Bill extension.

In a Sacramento Bee editorial, Peltier explained the importance of the Farm Bill, and the difficulties it faces:

“Not only must Congress act, it must pass the new 2012 Farm Bill rather than merely opt to extend the 2008 measure as a stopgap approach. Otherwise, there will be no mandatory research funding for specialty crops, leaving fruit, vegetable, nursery and nut farmers out in the cold.

“This may be a challenge, because the 2012 Farm Bill currently before Congress contains numerous elements, including such politically charged provisions on commodity support, food stamps, and conservation programs.” Read the entire article here.

Peltier remains hopeful that the Farm Bill will win approval before the end of the congressional session this year. “They could do it as a lame duck,” she said, but admitted, “We’re concerned about the timing.…We’ve tried to organize nationally, developing projects of long-term importance, like trunk diseases. We’ve come too far to let it fall apart.”

WineAmerica chief operating officer Cary Greene conceded, “Nothing’s going to happen until after the election. We want to see the bill passed. An extension won’t work for us. There’s no budget baseline for the wine industry.”

Greene predicted that when Congress returns after the election, “The food stamp program is going to continue as-is. What we’re debating is the type of programs like the wine industry. We’re concerned about programs like the specialty crops and research grants.”

Jennifer Montgomery, WineAmerica’s director of grassroots and political affairs, told Wines & Vines that U.S. House majority leader “John Boehner said today they’ll deal with it after the election.

“Our programs’ mandatory funding will run out Sept. 30. There’s no baseline, and they’d have to rely on funding through the Appropriations Committee” if Congress chooses to extend the existing bill rather than pass new legislation.

Some 37 programs in the Farm Bill will face defunding, she said. “It is a disaster. It’s unprecedented, what’s gone on. There are no guarantees how they will fund unauthorized programs.”

WineAmerica, she explained, works with other members of the Specialty Crops Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA), a coalition of 120 organizations. SCFBA participated in the recent rally in Washington, D.C., urging swift passage of the bill. “I don’t know what the next step is for the grassroots. We’re pretty much at the end of the rope with what we can do.”

‘Keep the pressure on Congress’
Although many programs will officially be defunded Sept. 30, “People won’t feel it” if the lame duck session does eventually pass the 2012 Farm Bill before time runs out, explained Rayne Pegg, manager of the federal policy division of the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF.)

Pegg also supported the bill in an article for the CFBF’s AgAlert newsletter.

“We know we’ll be facing fewer dollars next year, the way the current climate is going,” she told Wines & Vines. “We have to recognize that.”

The California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) also took a strong stance in its most recent newsletter:

“CAWG also supports swift Congressional action, which is vital to continuing the many research, pest-management and trade-assistance programs that benefit specialty crop producers who do not receive federal subsidies.

Winegrape growers depend on Farm Bill-funded programs such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to prevent, manage and eradicate invasive pests. Initiatives like the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program address food safety and production issues for specialty crop growers.

The 2012 Farm Bill also would cont inue to provide targeted trade assistance to specialty growers through the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program, helping to open new export markets.”

The idea of starting over with a new bill next year, with a new cast in the House and Senate and a new learning curve, is something no one wants to consider. Keeping the pressure on the lame ducks is the only way to fly.

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