Asparagus dispute stalks farm bill

Asparagus is a problem for the farm bill.
Asparagus is a problem for the farm bill. Bob Fila / Chicago Tribune / MCT

WASHINGTON — Asparagus can get pretty tough. Just ask Congress.

House and Senate negotiators Thursday were attempting to complete the specialty crop sections of a new farm bill. Fruit and vegetable growers will see new grants, more research and increased federal snack purchases.

"It's in a very good place," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., a farm bill negotiator and chair of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, said Thursday. "We have gotten the lion's share of what we have fought for."

But because this is Capitol Hill, there's still conflict. Asparagus, among other things, has been causing lawmakers indigestion.

Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan insisted on including $15 million to assist California, Michigan and Washington state asparagus producers hurt by competition with South American countries. In U.S. asparagus-growing regions, the money sounds pretty good.

The Bush administration, though, considers the funding a slap at international trading partners such as Peru. Some lawmakers, moreover, worry about setting a precedent other farmers could soon exploit. The asparagus provision was one of many still confronting lawmakers Thursday.

Facing a self-imposed Friday deadline for finishing a bill likely to exceed 1,500 pages, the Senate agreed Thursday to extend negotiations until April 25.

The latest extension is the third needed since December, when the Senate passed its version of a farm bill approved in July by the House.

"It's time to get it done," Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner told the AgriTalk radio show. "They've got to show some progress, significant progress."

Overall, the farm bill has a $280 billion price tag over five years. Food stamps and nutrition account for much of the spending.

Negotiators are haggling over $2.5 billion worth of tax provisions, including one granting faster depreciation and sweeter capital gains treatment for racehorses. This is dear to the heart of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican whose state is famous for its horse industry. It is anathema to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, negotiators say.

In meetings that alternate between the House and Senate sides of Capitol Hill, negotiators have waded through the dozen or so titles that make up the farm bill. Each title covers a particular topic, such as trade, nutrition or research.

The recently completed trade title, for instance, boosts an Technical Assistance for Specialty Crop program to $10 million a year from $2 million a year. The money helps farm organizations overcome trade barriers.

Last year, among other recipients, the Florida Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association received $60,800 to compile a pesticide database for use with Canada, while the California Grape and Tree Fruit League received $159,900 to help with Mexican stone fruit regulations.

The final bill, for instance, doubles to about $990 million the five-year amount available for so-called "Section 32" purchases of fruits, vegetables and nuts used for domestic nutrition programs.

Lawmakers also included a taste of honey in the new farm bill, calling for annual reports on the widespread collapse of honey bee colonies.