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Bush administration proposes more specialty crop spending

WASHINGTON—The federal government would buy a lot more fruits and vegetables under the Bush administration's farm-bill proposal, planted Wednesday.

Gratifying farmers in states such as California and Florida, the administration wants to increase specialty-crop spending by billions of dollars in coming years. The money would pay for school lunches, more trade help, additional research and more.

"I think the proposals in the specialty-crop area will be very, very well received," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said.

Other proposals, though, may be nipped in the bud. The administration, for instance, says it wants to stop paying crop subsidies to the 80,000 richest farmers in the country. Lobbyists and farm state lawmakers might rally against that idea.

"Congress will have the final say and set the final spending limits in the farm bill," cautioned Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. "It would be unproductive for our trading partners to assume otherwise."

Past farm bills have devoted most of their attention to subsidized crops such as rice, cotton and wheat. They'd still soak up a big share of the Bush administration's proposal, pegged at $623 billion over the next 10 years.

Much of the total cost comes from nutrition and food stamps, which the administration wants to rename the Food and Nutrition program.

"Food stamps are really out of the past," Johanns said.

Specialty crops, though, are the political flavor of the day. The Bush administration's proposal includes:

_Buying another $2.75 billion worth of fruits and vegetables over 10 years for the food assistance program.

_Buying another $500 million worth of fruits and vegetables for the federal school-meal program over the next 10 years.

_Investing $1 billion over 10 years in a new specialty-crop research initiative, delving into areas such as pest control and plant breeding.

"It's a good first step," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, the California Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees fruits and vegetables. "I'm very encouraged, but the trick always with a farm bill is to be sure you're going to be able to pass it."

The proposal also boosts conservation spending, prompting Environmental Defense, an environmental advocacy group, to declare that Johanns "has helped to lay the groundwork for farm and food policy reforms."

While maintaining much of the current crop-subsidy program, the administration hopes to save money by curtailing payments to the nation's richest farmers. Setting the stage for a Capitol Hill struggle, the administration wants to stop paying subsidies to farmers with adjusted gross incomes greater than $200,000.

"That's a lot of money," Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Connor said. "That's a reasonable threshold."

An estimated 80,000 farmers nationwide would lose their subsidies under the proposal. In past years, similar subsidy revisions have encountered stiff congressional resistance.

"The payment-limit portions of this will probably receive some of the greatest scrutiny," Cardoza acknowledged.

California growers of cotton, rice, wheat and corn received $321 million in federal payments in 2004, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research center. Other states get even more: Texas growers, for instance, received $1.9 billion in subsidies last year, while Mississippi farmers received $754 million.

Johanns flew to Tunica, Miss., to promote the farm-bill proposal, in the home state of Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott.

Showcasing the bill's new direction, Johanns planned to take his campaign to California's San Joaquin Valley on Thursday. He made a point of briefing A.G. Kawamura, California's Department of Food and Agriculture secretary, on Tuesday night. He'll elaborate in his appearance Thursday morning at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center.

Still, the administration's 183-page package is far from the final story. The bill itself will be written on Capitol Hill in coming months.

Even the administration's projected spending increases are somewhat illusory. For instance, the administration says it wants to boost Market Access Program spending by another $250 million over 10 years.

In reality, the spending totals—and how much the program gets—will be rewritten in five years, when Congress writes the next farm bill.

This year, the program is providing a total of $100 million to groups such as the California Cling Peach Board, the Washington Apple Commission and the Florida Department of Citrus. The money pays for overseas ads and promotions.

"(We) support the federal government's efforts in opening international markets and helping create new global trade contacts," said Richard Waycott, the president of the Almond Board of California.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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