For years, cotton and grain producers have taken it on the chin whenever someone wanted to complain about the billions of dollars being spent on farm programs.

Never mind that their economic woes often were caused by government embargoes or USDA officials urging farmers to plant fence-row to fence-row when the markets simply weren't there.

So, it was interesting to read in a recent issue of The Washington Post that apple growers — who have never had a government program — are now seeking some form of assistance for their crop.

Last fall, Congress appropriated $100 million in emergency assistance because of a sharp drop in apple prices due to surging imports from countries as diverse as Moldavia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Mexico and China. Nearly a third of the apple juice consumed in this country now comes from imports.

According to the Post article, apple growers from Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington are asking Congress for $500 million in assistance in 2001. American Farm Bureau leaders, meanwhile, are recommending a $1.5 billion annual contingency fund to aid fruit and vegetable growers.

Some industry observers oppose the measures, saying they would encourage other producers to get into fruit and vegetables when the markets are already glutted. But, fruit growers say that's the least of their worries.

“We're independent and proud of it, but we're beyond principles,” Karen Watt, a fruit grower from Albion, N.Y., was quoted as saying. She said she would gladly accept the $28,000 she expects to receive from last fall's aid program.

Increased imports of fruits and vegetables are a growing concern for producers in many parts of the United States. Orange juice concentrate from Brazil has been displacing more and more U.S. product. Now, Brazilian growers are moving into south Florida and buying up U.S. orange groves.

Livestock producer organizations are also seeking government assistance after years of maintaining their distance from such help.

All of these new requests for funding are expected to put more pressure on the House Agriculture Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, has announced an expedited schedule for writing a new farm bill this summer.

Shortly after the House and Senate passed the FY 2002 budget resolution May 10, Combest said he hoped to have an initial draft of comprehensive new legislation completed prior to Congress' scheduled Aug. 4 recess.

Complaining about the lack of specifics in the budget resolution that same day, Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., a member of the Agriculture Committee, said, “there's not enough money in the budget blueprint to write a new farm bill.

“If we could take the money we've been spending on farmers the last two or three years, there would be more than enough to write a decent farm bill,” he said. “But, that's all been appropriated on an ad hoc basis, and there's too much uncertainty in that process. What farmers want is certainty.”

Berry, speaking to members of the Southern Crop Production Association board in Washington, said Congress did set aside a contingency fund for various spending programs including agriculture. “I guess we will have to get there and claim the money first.”


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