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Michigan Apple Representative Testifies at First Farm Bill Reauthorization Hearing

Contact: Denise Donohue
(800) 456-2753

(East Lansing, Mich.) – Michigan Apple industry advocate Julia Baehre Rothwell made an impassioned plea yesterday for the reauthorization of the federal Farm Bill during the first hearing held by U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, now chair of the US Senate Committee on Agriculture.  The hearings commenced on Stabenow’s home turf, to learn about the impacts of this significant piece of federal legislation on Michigan’s substantial and diverse ag industry.

Rothwell, former chair of the Michigan Apple Committee (MAC) and current chair of U.S. Apple Association (USApple), said the Farm Bill is critical to the continued success of apple and other specialty crops, including fruits, vegetables and nursery products.  In Michigan and nationally, specialty crops equally just over half of the farm gate value of agriculture.

“Without these kinds of programs, we could see U.S. specialty crop production – U.S. apple production – relocate to foreign growing areas with far fewer regulations, abundant labor, and lower production costs,” said Rothwell.  “The outsourcing of our food supply would not only economically devastate our production areas, but would pose a serious threat to our national security.”

Rothwell testified five years ago at a similar House field hearing when the Specialty Crop title of the Farm Bill was just a concept.  She said she has witnessed the transformation of the theories into real-life tactics implemented in fields and orchards, and yielding significant results.

“The survival of agriculture in the United States touches every citizen and many of their basic concerns about life – good health – and having enough good-tasting, nutritious and safe food to feed themselves and their families,” she said.

Rothwell said the Specialty Crop Block Grants, part of the Farm Bill, are helping to fund projects from research to marketing, nutrition and food safety initiatives and pointed to tremendous advancements in research due to the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI).

“For the first time, the nation’s producers, processors and handlers of fruits and vegetables have had access to a competitive funding program of sufficient magnitude to effectively address a range of technical barriers limiting their sustainability, competitiveness and profitability,” she said.

She particularly emphasized the need for funds to research and control the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB), an invasive pest that has recently been identified in Michigan.  The bug caused up to 10 percent of the crop to be lost last year in Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Unique qualities of the bug defy traditional pest control measures, and its rapid spread suggest it will be the most significant pest on apples in a generation.

Rothwell indicated the BMSB and a lack of ag labor are the two most significant threats currently facing the Michigan apple industry, the nation’s third-largest apple producer.  More than 50 researchers from across the U.S. have submitted a $9.7 million research proposal to the USDA on BMSB, and the funding could come from the Farm Bill.      

Rothwell said the Farm Bill has helped expand the export market for many Michigan apple producers, and has been instrumental in getting more apples into schools through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

The Bill has also helped provide disaster assistance and crop insurance to farmers during times of crisis; however Rothwell said she would encourage some minor changes to the program to help growers more easily quality qualify for assistance. 

Rothwell said that while immigration does not fall under the Farm Bill, she reminded the committee about agriculture’s need for a viable guest worker program.

“Our industry strongly favors securing our borders,” said Rothwell.  “However, if in the process, we do not develop a workable guest worker program for agriculture, the time spent here will be for naught because we will absolutely cease to exist.  This is, in my opinion, the greatest immediate threat to my family’s farm and to the whole specialty crop sector.”

Michigan is the third-largest apple-producing state in the United States.  The industry annually contributes an estimated $800 million worth of economic impact on the state. 

MAC is a grower-funded, nonprofit organization devoted to promotion, education and research activities to distinguish the Michigan apple and encourage its consumption in Michigan and around the world.  For more information, visit MichiganApples.com.