Prosser center hopes farm bill will pass so it can stay open

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldNovember 11, 2013 

Officials at Prosser's Clean Plant Center Northwest are hoping for a new farm bill before the end of this year.

Federal funding for the center, which is dedicated to keeping grapes, fruit trees and hops virus-free, ended in September when the 2008 farm bill expired and Congress failed to renew it.

Director Ken Eastwell and his team have kept the center operating on money they've been able to save, he said. But they've had to put off needed infrastructure projects, leave five vital positions empty and postpone testing new fruit trees.

Eastwell estimates that money will run out sometime around the first few weeks of January. Federal funding typically makes up about half of the Prosser center's budget.

"We just need some time and resources here to make sure that these programs survive," Eastwell said.

The center, housed at the Washington State University, Prosser Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center, has managed a protected block of fruit trees since the 1950s and similar quarantine areas for hops and grapes since the 1960s.

Fruit trees included in the center's programs include apples, cherries, pears, apricots and peaches. It's one of 17 such facilities nationwide that form the National Clean Plant Network.

The programs have been revitalized in the last decade because of the increased demand that new orchards and vineyards be started with pest-free plants, officials say.

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

Jim McFerson, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission manager, said the Clean Plant Center Northwest is fundamental to the state's multibillion-dollar tree fruit, grape and hop industries.

Having the center is a little bit like having insurance, McFerson said. It ensures that the entire industry has access to material that is free from viruses. Without that materiel to propagate from, the industry would exposed to risk -- a lack of virus-free planting stock can threaten even established orchards.

Funding for the National Clean Plant Network was included in different versions of the farm bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, but neither bill passed both houses.

Congress did approve a temporary extension of some programs under the farm bill, but the clean plant network was not included.

Legislators from the House and Senate have been meeting since late October to negotiate the differences between the House and Senate farm bills, officials say.

U.S. Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Oklahoma, chairman of the House agriculture committee, said in a statement that the goal is to enact a five-year comprehensive farm bill.

"We have a responsibility to reach consensus and do what is best for all of agriculture and rural America," Lucas said.

Chris Schlect, president of the Yakima-based Northwest Horticultural Council, said there appears to be good support from Northwest senators for the portions of the farm bill that help the tree fruit industry, specifically the National Clean Plant Network, research and export promotion programs.

"We have to have the best product out there," he said. "This is part of the equation."

The Clean Plant Center Northwest is operating on the assumption that a new farm bill will be approved, Eastwell said.

The center also receives budget support from WSU and the fruit tree, hop and grape industries, which have been looking for ways -- so far unsuccessfully -- to find a long-term funding source, Eastwell said.

In the meantime, the center is focused on maintaining the current staff of 12 and preserving the program's biological inventory, he said.

The center's virus-free collection is stored in insect-resistant screen houses. This year, more than a hundred trees will need to be stored above ground because there is no room to plant them in the existing screen houses, he said.

The center continues to accept new varieties and will propagate them, but he can't commit to the testing process until the funding impasse is solved, he said.

"It costs us a lot of money to put a tree through the program," he said.

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

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