The farm bill: It’s our jobs, stupid!

By:  Seattle Pi – Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

Ninety-five percent of the world’s mouths to feed live outside the United States, and 160,000 people in Washington are gainfully employed in feeding them, yet the state’s $40 billion agricultural export trade is threatened by Congress’ prolonged failure to write a new farm bill.

The farm bill stalemate is another Tea Party-caused breakdown of business in Washington, D.C., that is hurting Washington state.

The defining program for American agriculture expired on Sept. 30.  It should have been renewed by Congress last year.  The Senate passed a bipartisan bill by a 68-32 vote earlier this year.  The House Agriculture Committee cooperated and produced a bill.  But it was stalled by a revolt in the House Republican Caucus by members demanding deep cuts in food stamps.

“Those are the same people who wanted to shut down the government,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in disgust Thursday.

Cantwell and Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, held a briefing in a cold Seattle warehouse to discuss the consequences.

The host, the 79-year-old F.C. Bloxom Company, markets produce — lots of potatoes — to more than 30 countries.  The farm bill contains something called the Market Access Program (MAP) which brings foreign buyers to Seattle for meetings with exporters.  F.C. Bloxom has acquired five new export customers as a result of MAP-supported meetings.

“The meetings I’ve talked about would be very difficult (without a farm bill): Nobody would show up,” said Bill Bloxom, the owner and operator.

Cherries have been a bright spot for Washington agriculture through hard times.  The United States produced 424,000 tons of sweet cherries in 2012, 264,000 tons in this state.  The U.S. is the world’s largest cherry exporter, to the tune of $558 million last year.

If the United States is not promoting its cherries and apples, said Keith Woo of the Washington State Fruit Commission, other producers will move in, particularly on such markets as South Korea that Washington has carefully cultivated.

Airplanes and computers get all the publicity, but agriculture products make up almost 50 percent of the Port of Seattle’s total exports, totaling $4.3 billion, and support the employment of 22,000 port workers.  Billions of dollars worth of potatoes get exported out of the Port of Tacoma.  The second-largest grain terminal in the world is located in Vancouver, Wash.

“It is time to quit beating up on food assistance and negotiate a bill,” Cantwell said.

Lots of luck!  The Republican-run House of Representatives recently voted to slash $21 billion from food stamp spending over the next decade and take 3.8 million people off the program next year.  Such legislation would never win Senate approval, and would surely be vetoed by President Obama.

A Senate-House conference committee has finally been appointed.  DelBene is on it.  The former Microsoft vice president represents a district that now includes rural Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties as well as part of the Snoqualmie Valley.

“A farm bill in Washington state is a jobs bill,” DelBene said.

Such programs as MAP do involve spending federal dollars, but the return to the federal treasury is not inconsiderable.  The Washington Apple Commission has used MAP to develop markets in India. Exports of Washington pears — with India, Russia and New Zealand the sought-after markets — increased from 380,000 boxes in 2008 to more than 500,000 in 2011.

Washington leads the nation in production of apples, red raspberries, sweet cherries, pears and hops — part of a $3.3 billion yield in so-called “specialty crops.”

Washington State University has used research grants supported by the farm bill to improve planting and growing of fruit trees, increasing yield and making harvest easier.

“The middle class around the globe is a rising market for us,” Cantwell explained.  “Agriculture here is about shipping to overseas markets.”

Did the 16-day government shutdown put the House of Representatives in a more accommodating mood?

“I certainly hope so,” said DelBene.  “If folks don’t feel a sense of urgency about this, they should.”