By EMRY DINMAN
Basin Business Journal
Agriculture industry groups around the Northwest are celebrating that after months of debate over work requirements, forestry management and myriad other provisions affecting everyone from farmers, farm laborers and the poor, the House overwhelmingly voted to approve the $867 million 2018 Farm Bill.
The Senate had already voted to approve the bill, and the President signed it little more than a week later.
“Farm Country has waited long enough, and today Congress delivered,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-WA, in a statement. “Farmers are struggling with a 50 percent drop in net farm income over the past five years, which is why market access programs and crop insurance are critical to providing certainty for agriculture producers.”
The massive piece of legislation contains vital provisions to every part of the agricultural sector, from tree fruit to grain crops to dairy farms and more. Michelle Hennings, Executive Director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG), applauded Congress’ quick action on a bill that provides certainty for growers through a robust crop insurance program.
Crop insurance is one of the only risk management tools available to wheat farmers, Hennings said, helping to manage the potentially devastating cost of everything from weather disasters to diseases. Ninety-five percent of Washington wheat is insured, Hennings said, indicating its importance to farmers.
More than just supporting insurance programs to protect farmers when the worst happens, the farm bill provides money for research into preventing disease in the first place, as well as other issues affecting wheat quality, Hennings continued. One of the more recent concerns for Pacific Northwest growers is low falling numbers in their grain, which means that a naturally-occurring enzyme has begun to break down the starch, affecting flour quality.
Washington’s environment is particularly suitable for soft white wheat, which is in turn suited for sponge cakes and other pastries beloved by Japan, one of the state’s largest export markets. The variety is also particularly susceptible to certain causes of low falling numbers. The vast majority of the state’s wheat is exported, and export buyers heavily discount wheat that has been damaged by low falling numbers, costing the state millions in prior years.
Beyond funding research into encouraging genetic resistance to low falling numbers, the farm bill will also support research into how the numbers should reflect on a farmer’s Actual Production History (APH). Taken on a 10-year average, a farmer’s APH can take a dive if deteriorated starches make their crop unsuitable. That can negatively impact a farmer’s insurance bill even if the farmer declines to file an insurance claim on the damaged crops, and new research into the issue may help to lift some of the burden from farmers, Hennings said.
The farm bill will also continue to support the foreign market access program. Around 90 percent of Washington wheat is exported, Hennings said.
Foreign market access programs make creative use of both federal funds and grower contributions to encourage foreign markets to use U.S. crops, said Glen Squires, chief executive officer for the Washington Grain Commission. That can look like a Philippines noodle manufacturer traveling to Taiwan — which primarily uses soft white wheat — to learn how to make noodles from U.S. flour from a technician paid by market access program funds.
“That way they don’t go to Australia and buy Australian wheat to make their noodles,” Squires said.
Wheat isn’t the only crop that relies on these types of market access programs, and the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents cherry, apple and pear growers, is also celebrating provisions that would benefit their industries. Market access and development programs are especially important given some of the tariffs and trade conflicts between the U.S. and foreign markets, said Kate Tynan, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council.
A provision for specialty crop pest and disease management provides funding to a center in Prosser that helps ensure that orchards are planted with virus-free materials, which can be especially devastating in an industry that invests a significant amount of time and money into orchards that are meant to last years.
The bill also changes how research funds are divided between various specialty crops. The 2018 Farm Bill provides for the full $80 million in the program to be available to the entire specialty crop industry, whereas $25 million of those funds had previously been dedicated for citrus breeding. In the new farm bill, citrus breeding, which has a minimal footprint in the Northwest, is handled in a separate program.
The farm bill won’t only benefit agricultural producers planting seeds and harvesting crops — dairy farmers across the state also have reforms to look forward to. In a statement, Northwest Dairy Association Communications Director Sarah Taydas thanked Congress and Newhouse specifically for their work passing the farm bill.
Taydas highlighted reforms to the Dairy Margin Coverage program, formerly called the Margin Protection Program, which insures dairy farmers against catastrophically low milk prices, providing some level of stability for producers.
SNAP benefits largely untouched
Provisions for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides nutrition benefits for families experiencing poverty, were one of the most contentious debates over the farm bill, one which held up final passage for months.
House Republicans proposed new work requirements that would have limited the number of SNAP recipients eligible for assistance. Individuals working fewer than 20 hours a week and who declined job training programs would have been denied benefits, which was meant to act as a cost-saving measure for the nation’s welfare programs. Newhouse praised these work requirements in June, saying the provision would not result in any cuts to services, and in a December statement expressed disappointment that they were abandoned in the final bill.
But Northwest Harvest, a hunger relief agency operating in the region, disputes the claim that work requirements would not lead to cuts in services.
“Protecting and strengthening SNAP is key to the future of Washington’s communities, and we’re pleased to see that lawmakers rejected the partisan House-passed bill that planned to take away food assistance from those in need through deep cuts and harmful changes,” the agency said in a press release.
Though it might not affect a massive existing industry, Congress’ decision to legalize industrial hemp may create an entirely new industry.
“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted.
In Washington, hemp may join its intoxicating cousin, cannabis, in creating new opportunities for agriculture. Washington’s legalization of recreational marijuana opened the doors for a multi-billion-dollar industry that supplied the state with $319 million in taxes in 2017, according to an annual report from the state Liquor and Cannabis Control Board.
Despite the proliferation of cannabis grow operations in the state, it has been more difficult to grow and harvest hemp, which is primarily used for industrial fibers. If the 2018 Farm Bill is signed into law, that discrepancy may end.