New farm bill critical for research funding, lawmaker says in Wapato

Yakima Herald - David Lester

WAPATO, Wash. — Researcher Wee Yee is developing data to prove a soup of crushed cherries and brown sugar is effective in detecting the presence of cherry fruit fly larvae, a pest that poses problems for Washington growers seeking to sell overseas.

His work, part of a broader approach to find ways to control the fruit fly at all life stages, is being conducted in part because of provisions in the 2008 federal farm bill that funded research on specialty crops like tree fruits.

Yee’s research, along with that of other scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service laboratory, brought U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell to the lab, northeast of Wapato, on Wednesday to emphasize the importance for Congress to renew the farm bill for another five years.

Cantwell, backed by a grower and an industry official who works on trade and regulatory issues, said a new farm bill is critical to the future of research that helps growers provide thousands of jobs and support the local economy.

The farm bill expired last year and Congress, unable to move a new bill, extended many farm programs through Sept. 30. One that was lost, however, paid for research on specialty crops, many of which are grown in the Yakima Valley. Researchers have been able to continue their projects with unspent funds. But a failure to renew the measure would be a death knell for those efforts.

Cantwell told a brief news conference that a new five-year farm plan should be a priority because it provides certainty for researchers and growers.

“We need to get a farm bill and dedicated funding so we know what we will have for the future,” she said. “I want to grow something other than exotic financial instruments. We need research funding to help us get better quality and quantity.”

Debate on a new farm bill will resume on the Senate floor following the Memorial Day recess. The House is expected to begin work on its version next month. Passage by both houses would send the bill to a conference committee to iron out differences before it can be signed into law.

Peter Landolt, research leader at the laboratory, told Cantwell the center focuses on new strategies to control pests and reduce pesticide use. Some of those strategies involve disrupting mating and finding insects that feed on fruit pests.

He said funding under the farm bill has provided $2.5 million over the last four years to work on pests like cherry fruit fly, apple maggot and spotted wing drosophila.

Without it, Landolt said, some work would not be done or would take much longer to find solutions to help growers. Another key benefit of federal funding is collaboration with researchers at institutions elsewhere in the country to work jointly on problems.

“Some things we couldn’t do and it would be a lot slower. We would need to identify what is a high priority and work on that,” he said.

Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council of Yakima, which works on trade and regulatory issues, accompanied Cantwell on a visit Wednesday morning in Pasco as well as an afternoon tour of the ARS lab.

He said the industry does not want another farm bill extension with all the accompanying uncertainty. What’s needed, he added, is a full five-year law for farm programs that provides continuity.

Jim Doornink, a Parker Heights fruit grower and chairman of the state Tree Fruit Research Commission, said agriculture research benefits not only producers, but the people who rely on the industry for employment and the state’s economy as a whole.

The research commission, using grower assessments, funds research and provides matching dollars for grants authorized by the farm bill.

In addition to research, the version of the farm bill now before the Senate provides $200 million to continue the market access program, which helps farmers market their products overseas.

The Senate plan also re-authorizes the specialty crop research funding and increases expenditures from $25 million to $50 million by 2017. A block grant program to the states for research also would increase from $50 million to $70 million under the proposed bill.