The Congressional Specialty Crop Caucus was re-instituted on April 15, 2024. (Photo courtesy of the International Fresh Produce Association)

By Natalie Willis, Reporter, Valley Ag Voice

On April 15, Representatives David Valadao, Jim Costa, David Rouzer, and Elissa Slotkin announced the re-establishment of the Congressional Specialty Crop Caucus — a caucus designed to address the needs of the specialty crop industry. 

Specialty crops account for fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, horticulture, and nursery crops — a majority of which are grown in the Central Valley. 

According to Costa, who represents a majority of Fresno and Tulare Counties, the caucus is significant for its strong bipartisan support as well as the assistance it will provide to local growers. 

“They’ve faced special challenges ranging from natural disasters, climate change, pests, diseases, and complexities related to market access. Because these products, if you think about it, with the exception of tree nuts, are highly perishable,” Costa said during a press conference. “Getting them from the farm to the supermarket to people’s dinner tables is important in the supply chain.” 

Valadao added that the caucus marks a step in the right direction in increasing representation for specialty crops which have unique issues in trade, labor, and mechanization. 

“The district that I have the honor of representing has about 400 different commodities that are produced,” Valadao said. “So, this is just that opportunity for us to create that little center point for us to be able to communicate and work together.” 

The International Fresh Produce Association is a large supporter of the caucus and according to the Vice President of U.S. Government Relations Rebeckah Adcock, its reconstitution is invaluable heading into a Farm Bill season. 

“People have realized that the division and the divisiveness have not served anyone well, including the [House] members themselves— certainly it’s not serving their constituents,” Adcock said. “Congress had decided that it’s time to come back together and get to work on these issues to find the common ground on the things that they can agree on and work as a group.” 

Adcock explained that IFPA is working with the caucus on recommendations for the Farm Bill to include specific protections for specialty crops such as crop insurance, resource initiatives, grant programs, trade programs, pests, diseases, and more, totaling roughly 109 recommendations.  

“We are half the plate, or supposed to be half the plate, and if you back out some of the specific money in the nutrition part of the Farm Bill, we’re less than 4% of the Farm Bill,” Adcock said. “So, we need to make some gains there to demonstrate the significance and importance of the specialty crop sector to the American economy and certainly to the ag economy.”  

The latest deadline for Farm Bill markups falls before Memorial Day, according to Costa, but it has been a challenge in both the Senate and the House. The caucus plans to advocate for increased crop insurance and specific protections for specialty crops. According to Valadao, another pressing issue to address is the rising cost of labor. 

“[California’s] got a minimum wage increase that’s affected and even overtime rules that have affected agriculture pretty dramatically and it’s gotten to the point where farmers can’t afford to actually package some of the fruit and vegetables,” Valadao said. “It’s cheaper for them just to let it sit and, sadly, this is a situation we run across, and so labor costs are something that is driving production down and it’s a problem, so it needs to be addressed.” 

Adcock explained that there are complicated factors within the labor issue that IFPA hopes the caucus can address. 

“We know we can do a better job for American agriculture and also for the worker community that wants to be here, wants to do the work, to make sure that we have an H2A program that is credible and functional and supports both American agriculture as well as the workers that want to be a part of the system and come into the country legally and with a proper protections,” Adcock said. 

The caucus will serve as a point of advocacy for specialty crops throughout the Farm Bill process to support legislation that addresses market access, research funding, and sustainability. Agriculture constantly changes, Costa explained, and while these fluctuations drive competition and innovation, advocacy is integral to securing the specialty crop sector in California and beyond. 

“I think it gives an opportunity not only for us but for our colleagues who represent urban areas who, you know, maybe have a romantic notion about how food is put on the dinner table…but not a clue necessarily about how hard it is to do that,” Costa said. “Because farmers are price takers, not price makers.” 

According to Adcock, the caucus highlights a willingness across party lines to work together for the sake of agriculture, specifically specialty crop production. 

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