Farm bill to fund research, crops in the Yakima Valley

By:  Yakima Herald – Ross Courtney
Source: Yakima Herald

Yakima Valley agricultural projects as varied as virus quarantines, overseas apple promotions and efforts to breed a stemless cherry all will continue under the U.S. farm bill that has now cleared Congress.

The $100 billion-per-year legislation passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday with a 68-32 vote, coming on the heels of last week’s passage through the House of Representatives.

The farm bill, which will pay for everything from food stamps to crop insurance for the next five years, contains several provisions that benefit the Yakima Valley’s farm economy, most of them through research funding.

“The diversity of research that the industry does is huge, ” said Jim Doornink, a Wapato orchardist and chairman of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. The commission combines grower assessments with federal and state grants from the farm bill for the development of new apple varieties, pest management techniques and more.

Both of Washington’s Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, voted in favor of the bill. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, approved it during last week’s House vote.

“We thought this should be a priority for a long time,” Cantwell said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Cantwell championed the farm bill at Wapato’s federal Agricultural Research Service laboratory in May last year.

The previous farm bill expired in 2012. Congress extended it for a year while debating funding for nutrition assistance, crop insurance and programs to stabilize milk markets.

This year’s farm bill doubles funding for programs that pay for projects to benefit specialty crops, such as tree fruit, grapes and hops.

The legislation provides $80 million per year for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which gives competitive grants for researchers for some of the nation’s smaller crops.

Washington State University alone has received about $25 million through the Research Initiative since 2008 and used it for projects all over the state, including at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, where scientists are experimenting with a stemless cherry that may allow mechanized harvest, said Glynda Becker, the university’s director of federal relations.

The bill’s specialty crop block grant program was funded at $72.5 million per year and bumps up to $85 million in 2018, the final year of the legislation, to provide grants dispersed by state agricultural agencies for research or marketing projects.

Washington is in line for almost $3 million, according to the state Department of Agriculture. In the past, the grants have funded pear promotions in southern China, weather monitoring at WSU’s Prosser facility and wine tour visits.

The farm bill also provides five years of funding for the National Clean Plant Network, an inspection system that prevents root stocks infected by viruses from being planted in American fields.

The program will receive $62.5 million per year through 2017 and then $75 million in 2018.

The network’s Northwest work also is based at WSU-Prosser.

In addition, the bill will provide $200 million of funding per year for the Market Access Program, which helps commodity and crop groups pitch their products to foreign consumers. Cantwell said she would have preferred to increase funding for the program, which received about the same as the last bill. The program last year granted the Washington Apple Commission $4.6 million.