With almost two months of 2007 behind us, there is still room to peer into the crystal ball at the challenges and opportunities that the U.S. apple industry faces in the coming year. There are indications that it will be a positive year for the specialty crop industry.

One of the biggest issues that specialty crops, and all of labor-intensive agriculture, will face is the immigration issue. There is reason for cautious optimism that this critical issue will see some resolution in the new Congress.

The widespread media reports of fruit left rotting in the orchards helped illustrate to Congress just how important this issue is to our industry. This, combined with changes in the makeup of Congress, should benefit efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, at least for the agricultural sectors.

It is widely expected that the new Democratic Congress will be more open to comprehensive immigration reform. Republican leadership in the House of Representatives was unwilling to return the issue to the floor, pushed by a small, but vocal, minority from the party. The Democrats, on the other hand, see the issue as one of the few points of agreement they have with the White House and will likely try to use the issue to illustrate bipartisan cooperation.

In addition, changes in committee assignments and increases in standing are putting some apple "friends" in a position to further assist our industry. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), an advocate for agriculture and a strong supporter of the AgJOBS bill, will now chair the Judiciary Committee. He has indicated that passing immigration reforms for agriculture will be a top priority. In addition, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) will continue serving on the committee, and as a member of the majority party, Feinstein will be better positioned to advocate for agriculture. Feinstein was instrumental in getting the AgJOBS provisions included in the Senate immigration bill during the last Congress.

In the House, Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), a vocal opponent of comprehensive immigration reforms, will no longer chair the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), a supporter of the measure, is assuming the chairmanship, and Representative Howard Berman (D-California), a lead sponsor of AgJOBS, is next in line and will play a leadership role on immigration issues.

2007 Farm Bill

After years of build-up, 2007 will also bring debate on the next Farm Bill. The specialty crop industry is optimistic that U.S. farm policy will be more inclusive to all of agriculture. The expectation is that specialty crops will play a larger role in the new legislation. The industry has already presented its priorities for the legislation in the Equitable Agriculture Today for a Healthy America Act (EAT Healthy America Act) that was introduced in the House of Representatives last year. While one of the lead sponsors of that legislation, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), will not be returning for the 110th Congress, there is strong leadership for the industry, as a majority of the 72 cosponsors of that legislation returned to Washington.

The goals for specialty crops in the new Farm Bill are not to create new farm subsidies or direct payments, but rather provide an investment in the future of specialty crops. This includes funding for programs that help grow demand for apples and apple products and build the long-term competitiveness of the industry.

Key programs to enhance the future of apples and other specialty crops include increased funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, expansion of the Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, and targeted funding for key conservation, research, and trade programs. The new Farm Bill should create opportunities for the specialty crop industry, including apple growers, marketers, and processors.

International trade is another key issue. About a quarter of the apples grown for the fresh market in the United States in 2005 were exported around the globe. The tools envisioned for the Farm Bill include programs such as the Market Access Program that will help build international markets for specialty crops, increased funding for the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program, which helps specialty crops overcome trade barriers, and other programs that will allow U.S. growers to meet the fierce international competition now in
the marketplace.

Food safety regulation

The remainder of 2007 will also bring with it some challenges for the industry, not the least of which could be a tightening of food safety regulations. The apple industry continues to work hard to provide safe and healthy products to consumers. While apples and fruit in general have not been highlighted in any of the recent food-borne illness reports, it is possible that the ultimate approach taken will impact our industry.

The extensive media coverage of the lettuce and spinach contamination issue and people becoming ill after eating at Taco Bell restaurants has the public looking for additional ways to safeguard our food supplies. This could well mean additional regulations and steps apple growers need to take to get their product to consumers. The apple industry needs to remain vigilant that any new approaches are science based and address real-world problems.

The changes in Congress after the November 2006 elections may make these changes even more likely. The incoming Democratic Congress could well be more open to investigating the issue of food safety regulations handled by the Bush administration and legislating "fixes" for problems they find. At a minimum, the new Congress would seem more likely to increase funding to federal agencies charged with inspections.

The produce industry is not sitting idly by waiting for a deluge of regulations; certain segments are pushing for solutions before the government takes action. The Western Growers Association is pushing for a special marketing order to be enacted to fund a program of industrywide, consistent "best practices" and a seal of approval. While this first step would apply only to leafy green vegetables in California, discussions have been ongoing about expanding the scope to a federal marketing order geographically, and expanding the scope of products to which it could be applied.

It is important that the apple industry play a role in this process, and USApple is monitoring and participating in the discussions.