In Our View: Pass a New Farm Bill Soon

The Columbian - Editorial Staff

Agriculture annually plows $40 billion into the Washington economy and sustains more than 160,000 jobs. Thus, it is vital to our state for members of Congress to set aside partisan differences and pass a new farm bill. The current one expires Sept. 30; last year's effort stalled because of differences between Senate and House versions on cuts to the federal food stamp program.

This year, the differences might seem vast on first glance. Senators want to cut $400 million from food stamps, while House members want to cut $2.5 billion. But as the Spokesman-Review of Spokane pointed out recently, that seemingly dramatic difference is only about "one-half percent compared with about 3 percent out of $80 billion per year spent on food stamps." From that perspective, we say just about any ol' compromise will do. Just get it done.

The far greater benefit to passing a farm bill involves reducing what the federal government shouldn't be doing in the first place: paying farmers not to grow stuff. (Wouldn't you love to have that job?) Many farm subsidies would be virtually eliminated by this year's versions of the farm bill. And as for total savings, last year's Senate bill would've cut $23 billion from the federal deficit over 10 years while the House bill would've cut $35 billion. Again, any ol' compromise will suffice here, as well.

The two chambers are simply too close to agreeing for negotiators to keep stubbornly disagreeing. In this corner of the country, Washingtonians might want to rally behind the cry: Do it for the chickpeas! Granted, chickpeas might not rank up there with corn and cotton when it comes to big-time crops, but take a closer look at an accelerating trend in American eating habits.

You've probably noticed the soaring popularity of hummus, which is made from chickpeas. National retail sales of hummus a decade ago totaled about $5 million. This year, that total is expected to reach a whopping $250 million.

And Washington leads all states in chickpea production, growing almost half of the nation's total. The 2013 Farm Bill, which recently passed the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, counts among its numerous provisions two from U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that would boost production of "pulse crops," including chickpeas, lentils and peas.

These costs to taxpayers actually are investments. According to a statement from Cantwell, the "Economic Research Service has estimated that for every $1 in publicly funded (agriculture) research, $10 of economic activity is generated." Much of that research is conducted by Washington State University.

Here's an example of how that investment works globally: The federal Market Access Program works to increase overseas sales of Washington crops such as cherries, apples and wine. MAP outreach efforts in recent years have increased apples sold in India from a few thousand cartons to 3.3 million cartons last year worth $61 million.

These are a few of the many reasons — stabilizing the future of farming in America is a much bigger reason — for members of Congress to compromise quickly and pass a new farm bill.