Our Voice: Washington agriculture needs Congress to act on Farm Bill

A lot of uneducated folks tend to think that the Farm Bill is filled with unnecessary gravy for factory farms.

What they don't understand is that, while there may be some perks in the bill we don't all agree with, it also contains funding vital for a successful agricultural economy here in the Mid-Columbia.

The Clean Plant Center Northwest at WSU's Prosser research facility will lose its funding Sept. 15 because Congress failed to pass a farm bill this year. Sixteen other centers with similar missions -- keeping plant stock pest-free -- face a similar fate.

Since the 1950s, the Prosser research center has been home to a protected block of fruit trees. Similar protections were put in place for quarantined blocks of hops and grapes a decade later.

That forward-thinking in the middle of the last century is credited with helping revitalize orchards and vineyards as the demand for new plantings has exploded in recent years in Washington. Nurseries depend on the center for disease and pest-free cuttings and starts for their customers.

"This is a very important program that has been very successful over the years," said Ken Eastwell, director of the Clean Plant Center Northwest. "Basically we are struggling. We really need the stable funding to keep it going."

That federal funding accounted for about half of the center's annual operating budget. WSU and the ag industry provide the balance of the funding.

The U.S. House and Senate approved their own versions of the farm bill but no bill passed both houses. The last farm bill was passed in 2008 and an extension was put in place to run programs through September. A long-term bill has proved elusive and many industry experts do not believe Congress will approve another extension of the old bill.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, thinks a new bill could pass before the extension expires at the end of the month. In the unlikely event that happens, there was no money in the extension for the Prosser center anyway.

Officials in Prosser say the center can continue for a while, but with five critical jobs unfilled because of budget worries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to find some emergency money to keep the programs operational. And the ag industry is trying to find a way to provide additional support.

With a value of $7 billion to the state, the wine industry can see the value in the investment in the center.

With a demand for new clones and varieties of vinifera grapes in a rapidly evolving industry, the Prosser center plays a vital role in keeping Washington growers competitive on a global scale. The Prosser center also has gotten tree fruit growers access to new varieties of apples in recent years. It is the primary import site for tree fruit approved by the USDA.

The bottom line is that the farm bill is not all about often controversial subsidies. Important programs exist in the bill that keep our economy growing, and the funding for the Clean Plant Center Northwest is just one example. For every questionable dollar in a farm bill, there are other dollars well spent.

Our lawmakers need to set their differences aside for the betterment of the nation and put a reasonable farm bill in place.