House-Senate conferees approved three major initiatives for the 2008 farm bill this week although they seemed to be making little progress toward passage of the full legislation, congressional sources said.

The three initiatives include: federal crop insurance provisions, the Commodity Reauthorization Act and new support for growers of fruits and vegetables. Staff for committee members continued to try to work to resolve the remaining issues in each title of the farm bill.

Conference committee members were getting closer to passage of the farm bill, said Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and of the conference committee appointed to resolve the differences between the House and Senate bills.

“Each conference meeting brings us closer to a new farm bill,” he said, “including today's (April 23) shoring up of resources for crop insurance, growers of fruits and vegetables, and in increasing security and regulation over commodity trading.”

Highlights include:

Crop Insurance: The first attempt to fix the federal crop insurance since 2000 produced the following changes:

  • Clarifies rebating rules and treatment of farmers as crop insurance agents under Federal Crop Insurance statute.

  • Allows groups developing new crop insurance products to get up to 50 percent of their estimated expenses in advance.

  • Authorizes the USDA Risk Management Agency to renegotiate the Standard Reinsurance Agreement in the 2013 reinsurance year, or earlier, if adverse circumstances arise.

  • Repeals authority for the Premium Reduction Plan.

  • Requires the Risk Management Agency to conduct studies or undertake research and development on a number of issues and potential commodity insurance policies, including organic crop insurance premiums and price election, crop insurance policies for beginning farmers, skip-row cultivation practices, dedicated energy crops, aquaculture, poultry production, and policies for beekeeping operations.

    The CEA Reauthorization Title updates the Commodity Exchange Act: — Provides greater transparency and accountability for energy markets that influence the prices that consumers and businesses pay (the Feinstein-Levin Bill).

  • Extends the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) fraud authority to include principal-to-principal futures transactions.

  • Expands the civil and criminal penalties for violating the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA).

“This new language ensures the Commodity Exchange Act will provide greater transparency and accountability in our energy markets, provide the public with greater protection from fraud, and increase the monetary penalties for violations of the Act to help deter people from attempting to game energy markets or other markets,” said Harkin.

In the fruit, vegetable and horticulture provisions included for the first time in a farm bill, the legislation:

  • Promotes organics: The Specialty Crops title includes a provision authorizing greater funding levels for the National Organic Program in order to ensure proper compliance and oversight.

  • Provides greater transparency in USDA purchasing processes: This provision mandates an independent evaluation of the purchasing processes used by USDA.

    This evaluation will bring greater transparency to the processes that the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) at USDA uses under its Section 32 authority to buy perishable commodities.

  • Initiates a grant program to improve the movement of specialty crops: The title includes a provision that strengthens our national transportation infrastructure for specialty crops by authorizing the secretary to make grants to state and local governments, grower cooperatives, and producer, shipper and carrier organizations in order to improve the cost-effective movement of specialty crops throughout the United States.

  • Provides a food safety education initiative: This provision authorizes a new program at USDA to educate the fresh produce industry and the public about ways to strengthen food safety by reducing pathogens in fresh produce, and implementing sanitary food handling practices.

“This farm bill is a tremendous achievement for the specialty crop industry, which faces unique challenges in today's competitive global marketplace,” said Harkin.

“It provides fruit and vegetable growers with the tools they need to address those challenges. The investment for these growers is historic, and greatly expands the nationwide reach, benefit and importance of this legislation.”