Watermelon group voices concerns

A heavy agenda of production-related issues is keying this year's federal lobbying agenda of the National Watermelon Association (NWA) that representatives recently took to Capitol Hill.

The issues included: Freezing the phase-out of methyl bromide, expanding USDA's role in the administration of the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), H2-A farm labor reform, restitution for victims of the Hunts Point scandal of 1999, more resources for the FDA to use in its surveillance of imported foods and education of foreign countries about hygienic standards, greater involvement for government in the 5-A-Day Program, and more research on the cucurbit yellow vine disease (CYYD).

Greg Leger, a watermelon producer and shipper from Cordele, Ga., who is the NWA president, and Vern Highley, the group's director of public affairs, took a contingent of watermelon queens to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to visit more than 300 U.S. House and Senate offices to talk about the producer-handler-shipper concerns.

They also met with Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman at USDA and members of her top staff.

Leger says Veneman and William Hawks, her deputy for marketing and inspection programs, were helpful in expressing support for NWA's agenda. Veneman was in between trips from being in numerous Western states and preparing to lead the U.S. delegation to the World Food Summit in Rome. She spoke to the contingent that included Julie Anne Bryant of Greenville, S.C., the 2002 National Watermelon Queen, and nine state chapter queens in addition to Leger and Highley.

Veneman especially endorsed the NWA's support of the 5-A-Day Program, saying the department had joined with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in promoting diets rich in fruits and vegetables.

Hawks, an agricultural producer from Mississippi who joined the Bush Administration last year, fielded questions from the watermelon queens and then met privately with Leger and Highley to discuss several front-burner issues of concern to the NWA. Hawks called in A.J. Yates, administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service, to join the meeting.

In other sessions, Leger and Highley conferred with the Agricultural Research Service to press for more research on the cucurbit yellow vine disease (CYYD), a production problem in watermelons that is believed to be vectored by the squash bug.

The disease initially was seen in Texas and Oklahoma but is further confirmed in other cucurbit production such as cantaloupe, squash and pumpkin in Massachusetts, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

Now in its 85th year, the NWA is one of the oldest farm service groups in the country. It maintains memberships in several key agricultural coalitions in Washington, D.C., dealing with methyl bromide and other farm chemical usage, farm worker availability, food safety and nutrition and health.

Methyl bromide, classified in the early 1990s as a Class 1 ozone depleter, is gradually being phased out of production. In 2002, its production is restricted to 50 percent of a baseline period going back to 1991 and will be restricted by 70 percent in 2003.

In 2005, it is scheduled for a complete phase-out in the United States. The watermelon association, supporting the Crop Protection Coalition (CPC) that includes ag groups across the United States that depend on the chemical for various production or storage uses, is offering legislative language that would freeze the phase-out at the 50 percent level until 2007.

“We think that a little more time, along with critical mass research at ARS and among the Extension Service, might yield a suitable and affordable alternative to methyl bromide,” Leger says. “We're told that a little more time in this kind of research won't cause any appreciable effect on the ozone layer vis-à-vis the long-range plans that the EPA has designed for ozone protection.”

Highley says that after nearly six years of the FQPA, producers all across America are still confused about the law. He says producers have questions about whether the EPA is enforcing the act in a balanced way by using sound science and validated methodologies.

“Why can't the USDA have a larger role in the decision-making that affects FQPA enforcement?” Highley asks. He proffered that the USDA has worked for 140 years in helping U.S. agriculture become the crown jewel of the American economy. In that long history, he continues, the department has dealt with the nation's food supply in a balanced way that benefits both the producer and the consumer, especially in pesticide management.

Highley says agriculture supports the fundamental goals of the FQPA, particularly the emphasis on protection of children and the establishment of a uniform health standard. “But the law must be implemented in a balanced way to avoid serious negative effects on pest management and food and fiber in the U.S., with subsequent adverse impacts on the health and well-being of the American people,” he says.

The NWA is advocating a “full partner” role for the USDA in administration of the FQPA. If that cannot be done, Highley adds, then Congress should amend the law to provide an enforcement role for the USDA equal to that of the EPA.

Other issues on the NWA's agenda include reform of the agricultural labor system. The group brought out at the USDA and its Capitol Hill visits that much of agriculture continues to experience shortages of laborers.

The guest worker program available to producers is still laden with high costs and mountains of red tape, they told legislators and their staffs. The NWA is supporting the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) in its efforts to provide short and long-term solutions to the current unworkable agricultural labor system.

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