Crop growers and Cantwell press for Washington state Farm Bill priorities

The sprawling federal law setting agriculture and food policy is up for renewal this year.

By: - June 12, 2023 5:00 am

(Washington State Department of Agriculture)

With work underway in Congress to draft a new version of a major agricultural policy law, Washington producers of crops like apples, cherries and potatoes, backed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are emphasizing the importance of programs to support farming research and expand overseas markets for U.S.-grown goods.

But the latest negotiations to reauthorize the so-called Farm Bill come as Republicans in control of the U.S. House push to tighten federal spending and as a partisan battle that just played out around work requirements for people receiving food assistance could reemerge as a flashpoint in talks over the legislation. The sprawling law sets federal policy for billions of dollars worth of agriculture and nutrition programs.

“We always hear about software and aviation, but people need to realize ag is still right there as a major employer and major revenue generator for our state,” said Cantwell.

The current version of the Farm Bill authorized a projected $428 billion of spending over five years. It’s set to expire Sept. 30.

“It’s a hard time to be negotiating a new Farm Bill,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Stabenow joined Cantwell in Washington state over the weekend, meeting Saturday with about 30 state agriculture leaders at a forum in Wenatchee to discuss the law’s reauthorization.

Stabenow highlighted how there are over 200 relatively new lawmakers, mostly in the House, who have never voted on a five-year Farm Bill.

“So there’s so much education that needs to happen. And with a backdrop where we just avoided default by making a number of cuts that have taken away some flexibility,” she said during a Zoom call with reporters on Friday, referring to the contentious deal Republican lawmakers and the Biden administration brokered in recent weeks to raise the nation’s borrowing limit.

Cantwell pointed to agricultural research that helped yield the Cosmic Crisp apple, as well as work that took place decades ago on grapes that helped to foster the state’s wine industry, as examples of how it can yield significant economic benefits for Washington.

Two specific areas she and industry group representatives keyed in on during Friday’s call were the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service agency, as well as USDA’s Market Access Program. The Market Access Program partners with farm trade associations and others to share in the cost of overseas marketing and promotional activities meant to expand exports of U.S. agricultural goods.

With Agricultural Research Service dollars, Washington State University is a significant recipient, Cantwell noted.

“There are times when people come and say, ‘let’s cut the ARS research program. We don’t need it. Let the corporations do it. They’re the ones who are making the money.’ Well, that’s not really the case. I mean, the case is that the ARS research program solves problems and helps innovate,” she added. “The people are working hand-in-hand in the community.”

Cantwell said she is “not confident” that other lawmakers will get on board with providing additional funding in these areas, which she suggested “deserve an increase.”

“That’s why I’m so happy that Senator Stabenow is here,” she said. “I’m confident that our growers know that this is the right investment. But what we have to do is now communicate to our colleagues all across the country and across the aisle that these priorities are well worth making.” She added: “There are some people that think we should just cap all of this and not make the investment.”

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, said research dollars have helped with problems like potato “soft rot.” “It’s all about how can we grow more food, using less resources,” he said, “that’s what our research is really focused on.”

Market promotion overseas is critical, too, he said. “We export anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of what we grow, depending on the year,” Voigt added.

Kate Tynan, senior vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents growers, packers, and shippers of apples, pears, and sweet cherries, said the latest Farm Bill reauthorization comes as tree fruit growers in the region “are really struggling to remain competitive.”

“Input costs are increasing at a rapid and unsustainable pace. Because of trade policies that have bridged two administrations,” she said, “we are facing retaliatory tariffs in previously important markets like China and India that combined have had an estimated cost to growers of more than $800 million over the last four years.”

“We’ve seen a lot of multi-generation family growers already lose their farms because of these difficult conditions. And these significant headwinds to our competitiveness really make these investments in the next Farm Bill that much more critical,” Tynan added.

Tynan also stressed the importance of the National Clean Plant Network, which she explained, supports a facility in Prosser that propagates and distributes fruit trees, grapevines, and hops that are tested to make sure they are free of harmful plant viruses.

The Farm Bill also authorizes food aid for low-income Americans, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP for short and sometimes called food stamps.

“While we will not have additional money, new monies, to put in through this Farm Bill in nutrition, we certainly aren’t going to cut,” said Stabenow. “We want to maintain and protect what we have.” She noted estimates of SNAP benefits averaging about $6 per person per day.

“We call this thing the Farm Bill and, honestly, it’s so much more than what that might imply,” Stabenow added.

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Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.

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