Potato growers hope farm bill passes

Tri-City HeraldJanuary 29, 2014 

Potato Planting

December 9, 2013 - Seed potatoes are cut and sorted by 3 Rivers Potato Services workers in Franklin County. Potato farmers saw lower yields this year thanks to hot summer days, but industry officials still expect enough spuds to meet demand.

HERALD/PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Washington and Oregon potato growers are hopeful that Congress finally will approve a federal farm bill to fund critical research for potatoes and other crops.

Chris Voigt, Washington State Potato Commission executive director, told Washington and Oregon potato growers Wednesday that he’s hopeful the Senate will pass a farm bill within the next week or so.

The U.S. House passed a farm bill earlier Wednesday.

Research on diseases and pest management were among the topic of discussion at the 2014 Washington-Oregon Potato Conference this week at Kennewick’s Three Rivers Convention Center. Other issues included proposed federal and state rules and legislation that could affect local growers.

More than 1,700 growers and industry members attended the four-day conference, which ends today.

Potatoes are Washington’s fourth top commodity, worth $700 million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is estimating that Washington’s 2013 crop was about 96 million hundredweight, up slightly from last year.

Already of concern is this winter’s low snow pack and how that will limit irrigation this summer. Potatoes can’t grow in the Columbia Basin without it.

Industry officials also are working to make sure critical research is available for potato growers. Bill Brewer, Oregon Potato Commission executive director, said the Washington, Oregon and Idaho potato commissions have recently formed a new partnership called the Tri-State Research Consortium to better coordinate research.

Brewer said representatives from the three states met earlier this week to review about $2.3 million of proposed research. The consortium has about $1.5 million to award. Each commission still needs to approve the grants.

The commission spends a tremendous amount of grower money supporting potato research, Voigt said. That research is done by researchers at Washington State University, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

Voigt said Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal for a higher state minimum wage is another issue of concern. “We are already the highest minimum wage in the country,” he said.

That minimum wage is among the reasons farmers have seen labor costs soar. Labor costs for Washington farmers rose by 36 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to a USDA study.

High labor costs have narrowed growers’ profit margins and have become an area of concern because Washington growers compete with other countries where workers may earn substantially lower wages, according to farm industry experts.

Also, the Department of Ecology is proposing buffers where fertilizer or pesticides are used. But Voigt said officials haven’t taken into account the impact of 500-foot buffers on food production and food costs.

On the federal level, Voigt said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to take another look at a proposed rule in its food safety regulations that would have required irrigation water to be treated for bacteria, something he said is impossible.

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

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