During a Tuesday farm bill hearing, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture quizzed panelists on a broad range of topics regarding specialty crops and nutrition programs.

The hearing was of special interest as it came just three weeks after the full committee, following bruising rhetoric and a party-line vote, passed the Agricultural Reconciliation Act of 2012. Over the vociferous objection of committee Democrats, the legislation put the bulk of a mandated $33 billion cut to agriculture spending on nutrition programs.

Tuesday’s hearing lacked both mid-April’s rhetorical fireworks and, mercifully, the repeat of a shouting match between lawmakers over Jesus’ views on government.  

For more, see here.

It did, however, provide opportunity for members to reiterate previously stated praise and criticisms of programs under the subcommittee’s scrutiny: Food stamps, nutrition and consumer programs, fruits and vegetables, honey and bees, marketing and promotion orders, plant pesticides, quarantine, adulteration of seeds and insect pests, and organic agriculture.

For witness statements and more, see here.

The first panel dealt with specialty crops. Asked about funding priorities in an age of austerity, Jerry Lee of nursery leader Monrovia, said “in the nursery industry, what we’ve been doing is looking at the process of the old regulatory framework that says ‘I’ll have a pest-by-pest program quarantine. I’ll have a shipment-by-shipment inspection.’ That won’t be sustainable going forward.”

Lee advocated coordinated best management practices (BMPs). “Having that on the nursery level requires (fewer) inspections. We’ve also found that by looking at the various BMPs, we can apply them to not only one set of pests, but multiple sets of pests reducing the need for additional audits. We’ve seen a great deal of success in pooling those types of programs together and they’ll be less labor-intensive in the future.

“To pull that off took a very much coordinated effort between the stakeholders, USDA, National Plant Board – all those people involved sitting at the table.”

Dan Richey, president and CEO of Riverfront Packing Company in Vero Beach, Florida – and speaking on behalf of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association – hit on three areas “of keen interest to our industry.”

The Specialty Crop Research Initiative, said Richey, is “an area of significant funding with a broad reach. Citrus Greening may be the poster child for that program when you think about Texas, Arizona, Florida and California. And we’re wrestling with this in more of a global sense. That program can … assist us.”

Second, Richey nodded towards state block grants that have “been of great benefit to us. Those dollars have been deployed on a competitive basis in a very positive manner from small producers to large producers.”

Third, Section 10201 “has also been used in Florida, specifically for port interdiction. We’re second to California … relative to the potential for disease proliferation and introduction. That program has been very beneficial in an outreach. The ‘Don’t Pack a Pest’ program in all the airports and seaports has been very effective.”

The hearing also focused on nutrition programs, which take up some 80 percent of federal agriculture spending. The farm bill debate, it should be noted, comes at a time when those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) benefits has risen from 26 million in 2007 to more than 46 million -- at a cost of over $75 billion -- last year.

Food banks, SNAP fraud

Sitting in on the hearing although not a member of the subcommittee, Massachusetts Rep. James McGovern praised the nutrition programs “bringing healthy food to people in need, people in schools.” He then pointed out that those testifying advocated cutting funds for the programs. “You’ve made the case why these programs are important. One is if you cut back on (them), there are costs associated with that. Costs to farmers; costs to citizens in the community – a less healthy community has more avoidable health care costs to take of; kids don’t learn as well in school without a nutritious meal; productivity in the workplace suffers.”

None of the members of the first panel disagreed.

“But here’s … the irony,” continued McGovern. “We’re talking about building infrastructure to provide healthier foods for people. And, yet, a couple of weeks ago, the (House Agriculture Committee) cut $33 billion out of the SNAP program, the very program that would enable people to take advantage of some of these foods.”

Lisa Schacht, owner/operator of Schacht Family Farm and Market in Ohio, said she “wants to see cuts to occur across the board.” Echoing farm groups who have weighed in regarding fairness in program cuts, Schacht continued “if you need to make cuts, then we recognize we may have to be a part of that – where a portion of what was in the 2008 farm bill cannot be provided again. We’re concerned that (such) programs … not be eliminated (altogether).”

Later, Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, lauded specialty crop programs and food banks while worrying that “every dollar” allotted to agriculture funds be spent properly.

Lucas queried panelist Rodney Bivens, Executive Director of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, about the food bank/private food industry relationship. “Like all industries,” said Bivens, the private companies “are under a huge amount of pressure to improve efficiencies and effectiveness. What we’ve seen over the last 10 to 15 years is the amount of donations from private industries is declining or, at best, remaining flat. That’s because they’ve improved their efficiencies and packaging. They’re determined to improve their bottom line. They aren’t in business to make donations to food banks.”

Lucas lamented that the House Agriculture Committee has to “contend with a lot of newspaper reports about fraud and abuse within SNAP – especially how it relates to both participant and retail trafficking. Any suggestions about what USDA may need to do further to prevent, stop, and prosecute those found intentionally violating the programs?”

Earlier in the hearing, Stacy Dean,Vice President for Food Assistance Policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testified that the SNAP net loss error rate is 2.3 percent.

A word of warning regarding fighting fraud was offered by Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution. “The electronic benefit card has made a real difference. Fraud used to be much higher than it is now.

“But you get to a point where you’re spending money to stamp out fraud. (However), because there’s so little of it relative to what existed in the past, you wind up spending more money to get rid of (the fraud) that’s left than is saved.”

Prosecutions, said Haskins, “are always in order if people commit fraud against the federal government by misusing food stamps. I think that’s one of the best deterrents.”