Cantwell touts farm bill as a fruitful investment during Selah visit

Researchers at the Washington State University research center in Prosser oversee what is called the Clean Plant Network, a virus protection program.

It's a global repository for fruit trees from around the world that Washington growers can access, and it's available courtesy of the federal farm bill.

So are matching dollars that help the industry export fruit and research funding to help growers be more efficient. Research grants for tree fruits, known as specialty crops, appeared for the first time in the current farm bill.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., touted those benefits during a visit to Zirkle Fruit Co. on Friday in Selah.

Those programs are continued and, in some cases, expanded in the new five-year farm bill that passed the U.S. Senate last month.

The House of Representatives this week began review of its version of the farm bill that will guide agriculture policy for the next five years.

Cantwell, who is running for re-election this fall, said her hope is the bill can be passed and signed into law by late August.

She faces a challenge from state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, a Spokane Republican.

Cantwell called the Senate bill a win for Central Washington growers and an employment generator by creating 23,000 jobs.

"What is in this bill for apples, cherries and pears will be an important tool to give growers the predictability they need," she said.

During her visit, Cantwell watched cherries being cooled with water prior to storage and packing. She also heard from several industry representatives about how provisions she pushed for have benefited growers.

Mike Willett, vice president of scientific affairs for the Northwest Horticultural Council, said the virus protection center has provided major benefits to the tree-fruit industry.

The center had previously been funded from allocations to Washington State University. But with tight funding for land grant universities, the farm bill now allocates dollars through the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, said the cherry industry can be more active in overseas markets because of promotional matching dollars, called the Market Access Program.

"Cherries are in 18 counties. Without this funding we wouldn't be anywhere near where we are," he said.

The cherry industry receives $1.4 million per year, a figure the industry matches dollar for dollar. Overall, apples, pears and cherries receive about $7 million annually to market their products overseas.

Thurlby said the federal investment pays its own way, returning $11 in tax revenues for every box of cherries sold. The industry's top markets are Canada, China, Taiwan and Korea.

Washington wines also use the program.

During her visit, Cantwell released a study, drawn from a variety of sources, that concluded each dollar invested in research returns $10. The Senate version of the bill provides $70 million in specialty crop block grants, a $20 million increase over the current farm bill.