Tri-Cities benefit from farm bill

By:  Kristi Pihl
Source: Tri-City Herald

Matt Whiting hopes the farm bill passed by the U.S. Senate will mean more funding for research into stemless cherries he's working on at the Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center in Prosser.

The bill, passed by the Senate in a 64-35 vote Thursday, continues funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the source of the $4 million grant paying for the stemless cherry study.

Whiting, WSU associate professor of stone fruit physiology, and other researchers have been studying all aspects of stemless cherries from genetics to mechanical harvest to marketing. That grant ends Aug. 31, 2013.

Whiting said they are considering the next steps for the project and would hope to get continued funding from the competitive grant program, which covers all specialty crops, including grapes and tree fruit.

Washington grows more than 250 specialty crops and is the nation's highest producer for apples, red raspberries, sweet cherries, pears, potatoes and hops.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, who voted for the farm bill, said it's part of staying competitive. "If we want to keep competitive in agriculture, just like in other area of business, you have to have research," she told the Herald. Overall, she said the bill includes positives for area farmers, especially the specialty crop program and Marketing Export Program.

The farm bill provides $25 million per year for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which grows gradually to $50 million a year, and the Specialty Crop Block Grant, which is distributed by states, goes up to $70 million a year.

WSU has received about $17.1 million from the Specialty Crops Research Initiative and $2.7 million from the Specialty Crops Block Grant Program since 2008, according to WSU. The farm bill also includes new research dollars for chickpeas, lentils and peas -- which also are grown in Washington -- and a pilot school lunch program for those crops, Cantwell said. Pulse crops are nutritious, inexpensive and support thousands of agricultural jobs in the state.

Demand for hummus has contributed to a growth of chickpea acres in Washington from 10,000 acres to about 80,000 acres since 2000, according to Cantwell's office.

Cantwell said Russia has become a larger consumer of Washington apples because of the export program.

The U.S. Potato Board has used the export program to market potatoes internationally with the goal of increasing exports, said Matt Harris, assistant executive director and director of government affairs for the Washington State Potato Commission.

The Senate-passed farm bill included $200 million per year for the Market Access Program.

The program requires the potato board to match the money, but with government help, Harris said they are able to do more. Depending on the country, the marketing includes providing recipes that fold potatoes into the country's normal diet, in-store displays and demos, chef training, audits of cooking and handling techniques and technical guides.

Most potatoes grown for processing originate in Adams, Benton, Franklin and Grant counties, Harris said. Increased demand benefits not only those growers, but food processors and other companies involved in the economic chain. The bill still will need to pass the House, and go through a conference of both House and Senate members.