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Friday, June 11, 2004

Law - Federal regulation reportedly imperils Hoosier tomato growers

The Gary Post-Tribune has this story today on the impact of a provision of the 2002 Farm Act on Indiana tomato growers. As the Trib's stories are only available online on the day of publication, I will try to quote the gist of this complex story:


PLEASANT TWP. -- It really doesn’t matter if the tomato is perceived as being a vegetable — even if it’s a fruit. To Glen Abbett of LaCrosse, the trick is to only use tomato acres once every eight years to eliminate plant disease.

That quality-control measure is hard enough. Now it may get harder if a federal regulation makes it all but impossible for Abbett to use his own land or rented acres to grow tomatoes in Porter and LaPorte counties. * * *

Abbett and other Hoosier farmers’ anger rises from a twist in the law that discourages landlords from allowing fruits and vegetables on land also used for corn and soybeans.

According to the Canned, Frozen Food & Grower Coalition, fruits and vegetables, ineligible for federal program payments would cause landlords to lose future eligibility for payments for other crops — even if tomatoes only get planted in the land once every eight years. * * *

The problem stems back to 1996, said John Exner, legal counsel for the Midwest Food Processors Association of Madison, Wis. That year’s farm bill established corn as a program crop, to be subsidized for those farmers who took part in the farm bill.

The regulations discouraging mixing corn acres with tomato acres didn’t really concern farmers back then. But in 2002, the government added another subsidized program crop, soybeans, to the list. Exner said that had a huge impact on Midwest fruit and vegetable growers who also use their acres for corn and soybeans, the latter being a heavy Midwest crop. “We’ve got folks with 100 percent corn and soybeans,” Exner said. “It only affects the Midwest.”

Abbett farms more than 3,000 acres this year, half in Porter County and half in LaPorte County. He rents about half the acres from landlords, and only uses a total of 338 acres for tomatoes he sells to ketchup-maker Red Gold of Elwood. Those acres produce 12,000 tons of tomatoes for the Hoosier ketchup company, a supply that could be threatened if Abbett and other Indiana tomato growers find fellow farmers reluctant to rent land.

“I am struggling to get rented ground for growing my processed tomatoes,” Abbett told Congressional members. “In the Midwest, most family farms rely on rented acres to grow their crops. I have found that landlords who I have approached ... say that future base recalculations will result in loss of base acres on their farm if they rent it to me for processed tomato production. This means that my ability to rotate crops and to fulfill my traditional contract obligation to Red Gold is severely restricted.” * * *

“Producers wishing to grow fruits and vegetables on farms that do not have a historical record of such production must either remove their farm from government program payments or face penalties for planting fruits and vegetables on subsidized acres,” Gray wrote with Kyle Althoff in a June staff paper. “Combined with penalties for producing on any land without historical production in fruits and vegetables, the addition of soybeans as a base eligible crop has unintentionally removed thousands of Midwestern acres previously available for fruit and vegetable production.”

Exner compares the bill to being stuck in a room with the walls closing in. Eventually, the bill could end processed tomato growing in the Midwest, he said. Already, producers like Seneca Foods of Wisconsin have had trouble meeting their goals, Exner said. “Over the long run, it doesn’t leave us many avenues,” said Steve Austin, spokesman for Red Gold.

Austin said the bill is so strict, it interferes with inheritance. Red Gold lost more than a valued supplier when a farmer was killed in a tractor-related accident last year, because the bill didn’t allow his personal history as a tomato farmer to be passed on to his heirs, Austin said. The man’s acres were phased out of tomato farming, Austin said.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 11, 2004 08:16 AM
Posted to General Law Related