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La. Farm Bureau/Radio Network‏

January 15, 2014

Cold Weather Hurts LA Strawberry Crop

Recent cold weather caused a slowdown in strawberry production, and that will delay some of the sales that growers were hoping for.

Before the recent cold snap, farmers were harvesting from the plug plants they planted in September and were about ready to start harvesting from the bare-rooted plants that were planted in mid-October, according to Sandra Benjamin, LSU AgCenter agent in Tangipahoa Parish.

"All the blooms and green fruit on the bare-rooted plants were lost due to the freeze," Benjamin said. Most farmers had been harvesting from their plug plants, which have been producing berries since November.

The row covers growers used to protect their crop don't hurt the plants, but they do allow mold to grow because they are in a greenhouse-type situation, said Ponchatoula-area grower Eric Morrow.

"This has been some of the coldest weather that we have seen in years," Morrow said. "Anytime the weather is in the 30s, we have to cover, and that has been the case most of the month of December."

The cold weather won't kill the plants, Morrow said, but it slows things down so growers won't have the berries they would like to have this month.

"Strawberry plants are really, really tough," he said. "The cold weather actually reinvigorates them, and they'll come on with a vengeance. In late March and April we ought to have plenty of berries."

Benjamin said growers would prefer cold and freezing temperatures anytime instead of continuous rain.

About 20 commercial strawberry farmers are in the state, and about 25 home gardeners grow strawberries in Tangipahoa Parish, Benjamin said.

"The commercial growers cut down on acreage this year, so there are about 285 total acres of strawberries planted in Tangipahoa Parish," Benjamin said. "Last season there were about 350 acres."

The reduction in acreage is due to the loss of last year's production, she said.

"We are not losing strawberry growers, but we're not gaining any new growers either," she said. "The largest operation is about 80 acres, and the others are from one to 20 acres."

Grassroots Action Needed on Clean Water Act Proposal

There are two things that farmers need to realize about a new regulation that the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release in the coming weeks, two experts in water regulations said at a workshop at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 95th Annual Convention.

One is that the new rule that EPA is proposing would greatly increase the scope of the Clean Water Act, making it of enormous importance to farmers across the country, said environmental and natural resources attorney Virginia Albrecht of the law firm Hunton & Williams LLP and Don Parrish, AFBF's senior director of regulatory relations.

Second is the need to make sure that EPA and Congress hear from farmers.

"Grassroots action on this issue is going to be hugely important," Parrish said.

The Clean Water Act began in 1972 as a non-partisan piece of legislation designed to reduce water pollution in the nation's navigable rivers and streams. At the time, discharging raw sewage into rivers and streams was standard practice across the country. The act set up a regulatory program that required permits that limited the volume of pollutants.

In the years since, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have attempted, with some success, to expand the scope of the program, particularly by expanding the definition of "navigable waters" or "waters of the United States" beyond rivers and streams to include such things as isolated ponds and wetlands, ditches, and even temporary water features caused by runoff and seasonal flooding. Not all of EPA's efforts to expand the definition have succeeded, Parrish and Albrecht said.

But the new rule, at least in its current form, would go even farther, they said. While there are some exemptions, there is no exemption for all standard farm practices, and there is no exemption for isolated or manmade water features such as ditches.

In fact, Albrecht said, ditches are explicitly included in the proposal. "People will tell you that there's a ditch exemption," and many genuinely believe it, she said. "But in fact you should worry about your ditches."

The rule is expected to be released and opened for comment sometime in the next few weeks, Albrecht said, noting that the standard comment period is 60 days. That might be extended, but probably not for very long, she explained.

During that comment period, it's vital that farmers comment, she and Parrish said, and they added that it's also important that they talk to their members of Congress even after the comment period is over.

Funding Bill Approved By Conferees

House and Senate negotiators have released the text of a $1.1 trillion spending bill, which will fund all sectors of the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2014. Led by Appropriations Chairs Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), the bipartisan bill, if passed, would avert another government shutdown.

The 1,582-page spending package includes all 12 appropriations bills for funding the entire federal government for the remainder of fiscal 2014, which ends on September 30. Specific to agriculture, the bill would provide $20.9 billion in discretionary spending for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), up from $20.7 billion in 2013.

The bill provides $2.6 billion for agriculture research programs and $1.5 billion for the Farm Service Agency. The agreement provides $161,206,000 for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which will allow NASS to resume compilation of industry-specific reports at their former frequency from fiscal year 2012. NASS is directed to resume all of these reports immediately upon enactment of the omnibus measure - which will likely include the June Rice Stocks Report authorized in 2012 and then suspended in response to sequestration.

The FDA receives a total of almost $2.6 billion in discretionary funding in the bill, an increase of $91 million above the fiscal year 2013 enacted level. The bill provides $826 million for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is virtually the same as the fiscal year 2013 enacted level. The legislation also contains $1.47 billion for "Food for Peace" grants, also known as the P.L. 480 - Title II program. This is $32 million above the fiscal year 2013 enacted level. The bill does not reflect the President's budget request to move this program to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) - a move USA Rice does not support. In addition, the legislation provides $185.1 million for the McGovern-Dole International Food Program that uses donated U.S. commodities to support education, child development, and food security.

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