Sen. Cantwell in Whatcom County to talk about specialty crops, farm bill

By:  The Bellingham Herald – Dave Gallagher (also appeared in Tacoma News Tribune)

As Congress gets back to the business of passing legislation, several local farmers are hopeful that a proposed farm bill is one that will offer a long-term solution for research in specialty crops.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., toured BelleWood Acres on Tuesday, Oct. 23, an event that included a discussion about the farm bill and about specialty crop research. The bill expired Sept. 30 and Cantwell said a new bill needs to be passed by the end of the year to ensure that block grants for specialty crops are not put in jeopardy.

Whatcom County agencies received about $345,000 in the block grants earlier this year for a variety of research projects, including work on improving raspberry cane management and reducing the amount of chemical residue from sprays that protect blueberries from insects such as the spotted wing drosophila.

"In Northwest Washington we know the farm bill is a jobs bill," Cantwell said. "Agriculture continues to be a cornerstone of Whatcom County's economy and berries grown here are in demand around the world. A new farm bill will provide certainty for key research programs that support Whatcom crops."

When asked about the farm bill's chances in the coming weeks given the rancor from the recent government shutdown, Cantwell said she hoped legislators have put their feelings out on the table during the shutdown and can now move on with bipartisan passage of the farm bill.

Research being done through the current block grants could have big implications for future farming practices. The pruning and tying of raspberry canes, for example, requires intense manual labor throughout the winter, so any progress in having machines do some of the work would be welcomed by Jon Maberry, co-owner of one of the largest berry producing farms in the county. The farm has 1,072 acres devoted to raspberries, 330 acres to blueberries and 70 acres to strawberries.

"The reality is no one wants to do these jobs anymore," said Maberry, adding that it takes a special person willing to go out in 32-degree weather and work in the mud, pruning and tying raspberry canes.

In general, the grants fund research to help those who are busy with the day-to-day operations of a farm. That allows farmers a chance to think ahead and look at innovative ideas, said Tom Thornton of Cloud Mountain Farm Center, near Everson.

Two versions of a farm bill have passed the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and a committee was formed to resolve differences between the bills. The proposed Senate bill, which Cantwell supports, is a five-year plan that would increase investment in the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program from the current $50 million to $70 million.