Approved farm bill supports Prosser center, local research

Tri-City Herald Staff WriterFebruary 4, 2014 

Garbonzo production

Washington state's chickpea production was up this year, despite weather that caused smaller beans. Added acreage helped keep the total volume up.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Washington’s tree fruit, hops, grape and chickpea growers all stand to benefit from the newly passed five-year farm bill.

The Agriculture Act of 2014 continues research funding that officials said is vital for the continued competitiveness of Mid-Columbia crops.

And it specifically lays out research dollars for lentils, dried peas and chickpeas, which have been embraced as a rotation crop with wheat by farmers in Walla Walla and Columbia counties.

The Senate approved the act in a 68-32 vote Tuesday. The House of Representatives approved it last week and President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

Bud Hover, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, described the farm bill as a critical piece of legislation that helps ensure a stable and low-cost food supply for state residents while lowering risk for farmers.

“While the farm bill doesn’t contain everything farmers and ranchers wanted, neither does it eliminate programs that are critical to the continued support of our state’s $49 billion agriculture industry and the 160,000 jobs it supports,” he said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, agreed. “The farm bill we passed today doubles down on important investments in the farmers and growers who have made Washington’s agricultural products world famous,” she said.

The bill reauthorizes the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, increasing funding from less than $50 million in the previous 2008 farm bill to $80 million per year for the next five years.

It also funds the National Clean Plant Network for five more years, with $5 million for fiscal year 2013 and at least that amount for each of the next five years. The bill consolidates the national network with the Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention programs and increases total funding to $62.5 million per year until 2018, when the amount grows to $75 million.

Washington State University officials had urged federal legislators to support both programs, said Glynda Becker, WSU director of federal relations. WSU has competed for and received about $25 million from the Specialty Crop Research Initiative since 2008, Becker said.

Those dollars have helped pay for weather data to forecast pest outbreaks, the development of new cherry and apple varieties, and research on ways to control diseases and insects in grapes, hops, potatoes and tree fruit, she said.

The farm bill also creates a permanent program for specialty crop research. Specialty crops had not been specifically called out in previous farm bills for research dollars, which meant there was always a fight to get research funding, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, said.

The new farm bill includes the research initiative and the Specialty Crop Block Grants as permanent five-year programs, which means in future farm bills, they will be looking for reauthorization and not face the same struggle, Cantwell said.

It sets aside $72.5 million a year for 2014-2017 and $85 million in 2018 for Specialty Crop Block Grants. Washington is the third-highest recipient of the grants after California and Florida.

WSU’s Clean Plant Center Northwest at Prosser has also received about $4 million from the National Clean Plant Network.

The center is dedicated to keeping grapes, fruit trees and hops virus-free, with 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 network.

The programs have been revitalized in the last decade because of increasing demands 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.

“We don’t want to be susceptible to a virus or something that is going to cause a problem,” Cantwell said, adding that could limit access to certain export markets.

This is especially important considering the economic impact the tree fruit and wine industries have on Washington, Becker said. The wine industry’s state economic impact was estimated at $8.6 billion in 2011, and apples brought about $7 billion to the state economy during the 2010 crop year.

The farm bill includes $200 million a year for the Market Access Program, which has helped Washington farmers and others increase exports. Cantwell had argued for more money. The research is needed in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace, she said.

For example, the Washington Apple Commission has used the money to market apples to India, helping grow the number of Washington apples sold in that country from a few thousand cartons to a record 3.3 million cartons worth more than $61 million last season.

The state Department of Agriculture uses the money to help agriculture-related businesses get into the growing export market, Hover said. Exports are now 30 percent of Washington’s agriculture industry, and that’s something Hover hopes to see climb.

Washington’s apples, cherries, pears, wheat and other crops are competing with other nations and the rest of the U.S. to sell agricultural products to the growing middle class, especially in Asian countries, Cantwell said.

Cantwell’s biggest eye-opening experience was on a trip to China when she saw someone in a market put Washington Fuji Apple stickers on apples that weren’t Fuji or grown in Washington, she said. There is a great consumer awareness in China of what a great product Washington apples are. The U.S. exports $150 billion worth of agricultural products to world markets each year, Cantwell said.

The farm bill includes two new programs that will benefit chickpeas, lentils and dried peas, also called “pulse” crops.

Those grain legumes are a growing market opportunity because of their nutritional value, said Cantwell, who said she enjoys eating lentils. They are low in fat and high in fiber and protein.

“It’s a superfood,” she said, and superfoods are going to become more important in the U.S. and Asian marketplaces as people look for affordable ways to get nutrients and protein.

That’s why she was excited to have the farm bill include research dollars for pulses and a pilot program to get them into school lunches, she said. Chickpeas, lentils and dried peas are eaten in low levels in the U.S., although consumption of chickpeas have grown in the last few years with the popularity of hummus, said Tim McGreevy, CEO of the American Pulse Association.

The American Pulse Association, a cooperation between the US Dry Bean Council and USA Pea and Lentil Council, hopes to see the amount of pulse crops consumed increase nationally as a way to help decrease obesity and the chronic diseases it brings, as well as internationally to address global hunger, he said.

“We have got to have inexpensive sources of protein and essential nutrients,” he said.

The research funding will help fill a gap noted by pulse crop researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and universities, including WSU, Oregon State University and the University of Idaho, McGreevy said.

The farm bill sets aside $25 million a year for research, he said. That research will include nutrition, yield and disease benefits, and finding ways to increase the nitrogen benefits of pulse crops.

Research also is lacking on how to use those crops as ingredients in the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Western countries, such as lentil or chickpea flour, McGreevy said.

The farm bill sets aside $10 million over five years for the Pulse School Pilot Program, thanks to bipartisan support and the championship of Cantwell, McGreevy said.

A pilot program at some schools nationwide will introduce chickpeas, lentils, dried peas and other grain legumes into school meals several times a week. McGreevy said it is modeled after a similar program to introduce whole grains into school meals. The goal is to increase the healthfulness of school meals, educate children on the variety of pulse crops and determine what kids will eat.

As an added bonus, McGreevy said the crops will offer a low-cost dietary fiber and potassium that should help schools save money.

Washington grows the most chickpeas in the nation, with farmers harvesting about 92,000 acres of chickpeas last year, up 15 percent from 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About 20,000 of those acres were in Walla Walla and Columbia counties.

State farmers harvested about 62,000 acres of lentils and 79,000 acres of dried peas last year, according to the USDA. Most lentils are grown in the Palouse, and more than 17,000 acres of dried peas were in Columbia, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.

As demand for those crops grow, McGreevy said he does see room for acreage to be expanded within Washington state, the Great Plains and the West Coast.

Demand will help create a financial incentive for farmers to add pulse crops into their rotations.

Currently, researchers with WSU’s national breeding program are developing fall-sown pulse crops, McGreevy said. Those crops could then be grown in areas in Eastern Washington with dryland wheat and summer fallow.

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

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