Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 16, 2013

Farm bill would help fruit growers


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Both pending versions of the 2013 Farm Bill would make crop insurance available to cherry farmers, northern Michigan's federal legislators said.

The Senate version of the farm bill emerged from the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture on Tuesday.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, who chairs the committee, said the legislation would offer crop insurance to cherry growers and also up to $100,000 in disaster assistance for cherry farmers who were harmed by last year’s March heat and subsequent frosts that ravaged 90 percent of the region's cherry crop.

“(It has) some increased disaster assistance for them,” Stabenow said. “That’s really important. We are directing the USDA to expand crop insurance. They are already beginning to do that. They will be expanding crop insurance for cherry growers.”

The U.S. House of Representatives also is working on its own version of the farm bill. Republican Rep. Dan Benishek, whose district includes the Traverse City area, said he succeeded in getting crop insurance for cherry farmers inserted into the bill and that his fellow legislators support the proposal.

"The tart cherry business, it's pretty important stuff," Benishek said. "We've already got (crop insurance) in the base language of the bill."

Cherry farmers said 2012 was a year of historic losses. Problems were compounded by the inability of many growers to obtain crop insurance. Sweet cherry growers in only a handful of counties could access crop insurance through a pilot program, while tart cherry farmers have no crop insurance coverage options at all.

Both versions of the proposed legislation received praise Wednesday from Cedar-area cherry farmer Ben LaCross. LaCross, who represents the Michigan Farm Bureau in the region, said “it’s nice to see an increased opportunity for specialty crops like cherries to have access to crop insurance.”

LaCross said he’s also encouraged by commitments in the Senate bill to research funding grants for fruit growers.

“The research provisions in the farm bill really play a major role in specialty crop production,” LaCross said. “(Fruit growers) are a minor blip on whole agricultural radar, so we rely on places like Michigan State University to do research and trials to find the best ways to grow.”

The five-year Farm Bill has endured a tortured path: the Senate approved its version last year, but the House of Representatives never voted on its own version. The version that emerged from the Senate Agriculture Committee still needs to be passed by the full Senate. Benishek said he's optimistic the House version will emerge from that body's Agriculture Committee, of which he's a member.

Benishek said he's also advocating for reform to the food stamp program and better federal management of timber resources in Michigan in his work on the farm bill.

"I think we’ve done a good job for Michigan farmers," Benishek said. "I'm happy to be on the committee. I'm the only guy from Michigan who's on it."