Farm bill's failure adds to Prosser clean plant center worries

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldAugust 31, 2013 

Congress' failure to pass a farm bill this year has left question marks in place of dollar signs for a Prosser center dedicated to keeping grapes, apples and other crops pest-free.

The Clean Plant Center Northwest, along with 16 other centers nationwide, could soon be crippled by the stalemate, raising concerns that crops could become vulnerable to insects and diseases.

The federal funding approved in the 2008 farm bill ends Sept. 15 for the center at the Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center.

The Prosser research center has had a protected block of fruit trees since the '50s and similar quarantined areas for hops and grapes since the '60s. But the programs have been revitalized in the past decade with the increased demand that new orchards and vineyards be started with pest-free plants.

Nurseries rely on the center for the healthy cuttings and starts they use to supply Northwest growers.

"This is a very important program and it 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."

Normally, the Prosser center gets about half its funding from the federal government and a quarter each from WSU and from the industry, said Eastwell, a plant pathologist. The amount of the center's annual budget was not immediately available.

Eastwell said the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed different versions of the farm bill that included money for the National Clean Plant Network. But no bill passed both houses.

Congressman Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, is hopeful that the House and Senate will be able to resolve their differences and pass a five-year farm bill before the current extension expires, said Hastings' spokesman Neal Kirby.

In the meantime, the extension included no money for the clean plant network.

Eastwell said the Prosser center can limp along for a few months. They are down to 12 employees, with five critical positions currently unfilled because of the budget uncertainty, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services is looking for some emergency funding to keep programs going, Eastwell said.

The hop, grape and fruit tree industries also are looking at whether the industry can provide more financial support.

The National Clean Plant Network is a classic example of a public and private partnership, said Vicky Scharlau, executive director for the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.

She said it's money well spent to help an industry that has a $7 billion annual impact on the state.

Growing Clean

When Inland Desert Nursery near Benton City grows new vines for the wine grape industry, it's using healthy vines bought from the Prosser plant center.

The nursery supplies hundreds of grape varieties and clones, said Kevin Judkins, whose father started the nursery. Each year, they add 10 to 20 new ones.

Pests can spread diseases to the plants, but he said the main way that problems spread is by cultivating new plants from ones infected with viruses.

That's why it's critical to have a trusted source for healthy plants, Judkins said.

About 80 percent of the nursery's stock is certified through the state Department of Agriculture, which means the material is true to type and free of devastating viruses, he said.

Inland Desert is the largest of the five nurseries in the state growing certified grape vines, said Tom Wessels, the Department of Agriculture's plant services program manager.

Certified means the grapevines are produced under a specific process, he said. It's not a guarantee that the vines are clean.

The state tests mother vines twice a year, but also inspects a nursery's stock three times a year. Samples are sent to WSU, where they are tested for viruses, he said. The grower pays for the testing.

"It would be too expensive to test every vine, so the next best thing is the certification program where you are trying to keep the mother vines clean," he explained.

Pests have the largest impact during the first few years when a plant is getting established, Eastwell said. While some viruses can be treated, others could render the plant no longer able to produce a marketable crop.

And it's expensive and time consuming to pull out damaged vines and then replant, Scharlau said. Farmers who have to replant will have no income until the new plants come into full production in three to seven years.

"We are a young industry still and there is a lot of planting left to be done," Judkins said.

Growing Industry

The need for Clean Plant Center Northwest is a continuing one because of the quickly evolving grape industry, Judkins said. There is a demand for new clones and new varieties that nurseries and the Prosser center are trying to fill.

In addition to being a source for healthy mother plants, the National Clean Plant Network also tests new varieties to see how they will grow in the area and to make sure they are healthy.

The Prosser center helped growers get access to new foreign varieties including Fuji and Braeburn apples.

And Eastwell said the Prosser center has been approved by the USDA to be the primary import site for tree fruit.

At a quarantined facility in Prosser, the new varieties go through lengthy and expensive testing procedures to ensure they are safe to grow here, he said.

For grapes, the Prosser center can ask the University of California Davis center to import grape varieties for them. The Davis center will do the initial testing, with the final tests done in Prosser.

The clones and varieties that growers in the northern states want are different because of the cool winters that grape varieties in Washington state need to survive, Eastwell said.

But he said the Davis center will not accept material on Prosser's behalf without the farm bill funding.

"This is not a subsidy," Scharlau said. "It's an investment in the future of an economic return."

Last year's wine grape crop was the largest the state has ever had, she said. And this year's crop is expected to bust that record and to continue to gain attention internationally for its wine industry.

Reliable access to healthy plants is critical, she said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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