Cantwell cheers farm bill on Yakima Valley stop

The U.S. farm bill, passed this month after years of negotiating, will help ensure the Yakima Valley fruit industry remains free of disease, competitive in the global economy and on the cutting edge of science.

That’s what Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Thursday as she traveled the state touting the newly signed legislation that helps fund everything from food stamps to milk price insurance.

“We’re very excited now that all of that hard work is going to mean good opportunities for us right here in Washington state,” she told reporters gathered at the Domex Superfresh Growers cold storage facility in Gleed, full of apple bins headed to Canada, India and Vietnam.

“Yakima just isn’t the Fruit Bowl of our nation, it is the Fruit Bowl of the whole world,” Cantwell said.

Her tour also included stops in Puget Sound and Benton City.

The previous farm bill expired in 2012, but was extended as Congress debated cuts to a nutrition assistance program for the poor — what used to be called food stamps — and other provisions. Congress passed the bill in early February and it was signed by President Barack Obama a few days later.

An important provision of the farm bill for local growers is the Market Access Program, which provides $200 million per year in competitive matching grants to help agricultural associations pitch products internationally.

Roughly 30 percent of the state’s apples, cherries and pears are exported, a number officials expect to reach 50 percent in the coming years. In the 2012-13 crop year, Washington packers sold $923 million worth of apples alone to 60 different nations, according to the Washington Apple Commission, which received $4.6 million from the Market Access Program in 2013.

Nations with high tariffs, such as India, are among the state’s top customers, while 15 years ago growers would not have dreamed of selling apples in Vietnam like they do today, said Robert Kershaw, president of Domex.

“It’s very exciting to be a part of,” Kershaw said.

Meanwhile, the farm bill also creates a permanent budget home for the Specialty Crop Research Program, which helps pay university researchers to pioneer new techniques in harvesting and pest management. Washington State University, which operates research centers in Wenatchee and Prosser, is among the recipients.

Funded at $80 million per year, the research program is designed specifically to support smaller crops that would otherwise compete for research funding against the giants of wheat, soybeans and corn.

The farm bill also re-establishes the National Clean Plant Network, a partnership of nurseries, growers and researchers that aims to prevent the spread of diseased root stocks within the nation’s fruit, grape, almond and hop farms. The Northwest’s branch of the network is located in Prosser at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center.

The bill sets aside 12 times the amount of money — $62.5 million per year, jumping to $75 million in 2018 ­— for the network at the 2008 funding level.