A leading state political figure is growing impatient with her Washington, D.C., colleagues over their slow movement in hammering out a key piece of legislation that could have huge local consequences.
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) visited a Spokane Valley grain inspection lab on Monday to visit with Eastern Washington wheat and potato growers to call for bipartisan action on the Farm Bill. Cantwell urged the House and Senate to begin a conference to work out the differences between each chamber’s Farm Bill. The Senate approved a five-year Farm Bill on June 10 with Cantwell’s support, and the House passed its version on July 11.
The Farm Bill’s current extension expires on Sept. 30. Without Congressional action, the nation would revert to the Farm Bill from 1949.
Cantwell detailed what impact the Farm Bill’s expiration would have on Washington farmers, including the end of programs that research local crops and help to ship them overseas to new markets.
“Eastern Washington farmers need Congress to get this Farm Bill passed and on to the president’s desk by Sept. 30,” said Cantwell, who joined leaders from the Washington Wheat Association and the Washington State Potato Commission at the Washington state Department of Agriculture’s Spokane grain inspection lab. “Agriculture supports 160,000 jobs in Washington state -- and our wheat and our potatoes end up on dinner tables around the world. Today, I’m calling on Congressional leaders today to work together so we can resolve the differences between the farm bills, and support jobs across Washington state.”
If Congress fails to act by the end of September, Washington state farmers will lose critical tools that increase wheat and potato exports to overseas markets. The expiration of the Farm Bill would also mean the end of new grants for research that increases crop yields by reducing damage from disease and pests.
In Washington state, the agriculture industry employs 160,000 people and represents 12 percent of the state’s economy while generating $40 billion. In Spokane County, there are 2,502 farms – the second highest number in the state. Agriculture in the county generates $587 million in annual economic impact and supports 1,576 jobs.
“The Farm Bill is a jobs bill. These programs help us sell our products in markets like Nigeria and Vietnam and research in the Farm Bill is key to sustaining our opportunities in these markets,” Cantwell said. “Our economy needs the boost in the arm. There are very few working days left, so the time to act is now.”
Without a new Farm Bill the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program will cease to operate. U.S. Wheat Associates has used MAP and FMDP to double annual wheat exports to Nigeria to nearly 3 million metric tons. Wheat growers have also used the programs to increase wheat sales to Southeast Asia by 40 percent to an average of 3.8 million metric tons in 2010 through 2012.
New grants from the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and Special Crop Block Grant programs supporting agricultural research that increase potato yields are also at risk without a new Farm Bill. For example, the Farm Bill supported research grants at the Yakima Agricultural Research Laboratory to reduce crop damage from flies and other insects and to prevent Zebra Chip disease in potatoes. Washington State University’s Agriculture Research Center has conducted more than $83 million worth of United States Department of Agriculture research over the past five years.
On Monday, Cantwell toured the Washington state Department of Agriculture’s Spokane lab and saw inspectors testing wheat before it heads to domestic and overseas markets. The lab is one of the busiest grain testing operations in the nation, and supports the state’s $925 million wheat industry and 25,000 jobs in Washington that are tied to wheat farming.
Cantwell has been a leading voice in the Senate calling for passage of a Farm Bill to support agricultural jobs in Washington and around the nation. Leading up to the Senate vote, Cantwell went on a statewide tour in May 2013 to urge the Farm Bill’s swift passage. Her tour included stops in Spokane Valley, Pasco, Yakima and Seattle.
The Senate Farm Bill includes two Cantwell provisions that could help drive total farm acres of pulse crops -- which include peas, lentils and chickpeas -- in Washington state to more than double over the next 5 to 10 years, according to industry estimates. Washington state is the top chickpea producer in the nation -- producing nearly half of the nation’s total -- and third in the nation for pea and lentil production.
Cantwell’s Pulse Health Initiative would support $25 million per year over five years in pulse crop health research grants to help increase public demand and drive job growth. The research would look into the health and nutrition benefits of pulse crops, including their ability to reduce obesity and associated chronic disease.
The initiative would support technical expertise to help food companies use nutrient-dense pulse crops in their products as well as establish an educational program to encourage the consumption and production of pulse crops. On a visit to Spokane on June 3, 2012, Cantwell joined local businesses, farmers and researchers and urged Senate leaders to make the ‘Pulse Health Initiative’ a top priority in the Farm Bill.
The Senate Farm Bill also includes Cantwell’s Pulse School Pilot amendment, which would provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture $10 million through 2017 to purchase pulse crops to use in school breakfasts and lunches. This could include raw beans and lentils as well as other foods made from pulse crops, such as hummus, pizza dough fortified with pea flower, or baked beans.
Flours made from pulse crops could be added to breads, tortillas and pastas to enhance their nutritional value. Pulse crops are an excellent, cost-effective source of fiber, potassium, protein and other essential vitamins and nutrients.