MOULTRIE — Colquitt County holds the top spot in production of vegetables in the state of Georgia, so it stands to reason local farmers will have an eye on the U.S. Senate next week as the farm bill, already passed in the House, goes to mark-up.

Specialty crop farmers haven’t asked for a subsidy program along the lines of the hotly debated programs of cotton or peanuts that benefit individuals.

“I think the handwriting is on the wall as far as subsidy payments go. That is going to be much more difficult to acquire from that standpoint. Our growers are used to farming on the open market and let the market handle the issues of overproduction or pricing,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetables Association. “That has not been an issue for us. What has been an issue is that we have not been a part of some of the foreign policy in recognizing specialty crops as a major commodity for the state.”

What produce growers did want was research money through block grants to the state that would help the competitiveness of U.S. fruits and vegetables in the world marketplace, Hall said.

The nutrition portion of the farm bill, which some legislators in the House couldn’t support because of its expense, includes the food stamp program and the school lunch program.

One of the most successful programs has been the fresh fruit and vegetable snacks provided in public schools, Hall said. The nutrition portion of the farm bill would increase funding of that program. Aside from an additional market for U.S.-grown crops, it also provides a learning experience for children that they can eat a healthful carrot for a snack, perhaps, instead of a bag of chips or candy bar, Hall said.

“It will very interesting for us how this will shake out. We were very happy with the House version. We’ve been very supportive of ag research for specialty crops, and there’s been a fairly significant increase in funding for our research projects,” he said.

More and more, Georgia lawmakers have been preaching that agriculture is tantamount to national security. The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association agrees.

“We definitely do. You need to look at how fruits and vegetables are produced — the level of regulations we’re faced with, both from a labor standpoint and from a regulatory standpoint with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and other regulatory areas. We wind up tending to put burdens on the grower, and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be protecting our environment or protecting our labor forces, but what will happen eventually is that production will move out of the United States and into third world countries,” Hall said. “If we continue to see problems from that standpoint and labor being one of the major issues, then we have a situation where we won’t be able to feed our country.”

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