Farm bill money rescues Prosser's clean plant center

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 20, 2014 

— The recently passed farm bill eliminated the budget shortfalls facing a Prosser center dedicated to keeping grapes, apples and other crops pest-free, officials said Thursday.

Federal funding for the Clean Plant Center Northwest and for 16 other centers nationwide is secure for at least the next five years.

That's great news for Mid-Columbia farmers who depend on its work.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and local industry leaders stopped by Benton City's Inland Desert Nursery on Thursday as part of a statewide tour to celebrate the farm bill's passage.

About 75 percent of the certified "clean" vines planted in Washington come from Inland Desert Nursery, Cantwell said.

Kevin Judkins, the nursery's co-owner, told the assembled officials that the vines in the Prosser center's foundation blocks are tested each year to ensure they are still pest- and virus-free.

If there is ever a concern with a plant in the Prosser foundation block, the nursery can have any of its vines from that plant tested and removed if needed, Judkins said.

The nursery tracks the source of the vines in its mother block that it uses to propagate vines.

Washington State University, which runs the clean plant center, had to scramble for funding last fall while waiting for Congress to pass the farm bill, said Gary Grove, director of the college's Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center in Prosser.

WSU had a contingency plan to keep the center open, but that was temporary, Grove said. They kept vacant key positions. Now, they have begun the search for an operations manager.

The center had continued to accept new varieties and propagate them, but officials postponed testing processes until the funding impasse was solved.

"It was getting down to the wire on whether or not we were going to be able to get help," Cantwell said.

Inland Desert Nursery had considered diverting a 5 percent fee on all grapevine sales -- intended to support clean plants -- to support the center's operations, Judkins said.

That fee is collected by the state Department of Agriculture and an advisory council decides how it is used.

Now it can go to other needed work, such as virology research at WSU, Judkins said.

The Clean Plant Center Northwest has had a protected block of fruit trees since the 1950s and similar quarantine areas for hops and grapes since the 1960s. The fruit trees include apples, cherries, pears, apricots and peaches.

Cantwell said the center supports about $2.8 billion worth of commodities.

Dick Boushey, a Grandview wine and juice grape grower, said having access to clean plants like those provided by Inland Nursery and its partnership with the Clean Plant Center Northwest is the basis and foundation of the state's wine industry.

That industry has grown to 790 wineries, with wine grapes grown on about 50,000 acres of vineyards.

It's costly to plant new vineyards, which is part of the reason that growers like Boushey need access to clean plants.

"All the wines come from these plants," he said.

The goal is to have a vineyard last more than 30 years. When Boushey planted vineyards in 1980, Washington growers didn't have the same access that they do now to clean plant material.

The vineyard he planted then -- with the cleanest plants he could find -- is now 33 years old.

The other two he planted that year -- with more questionable vines -- lasted 10 and 15 years.

Another important reason to keep a source of clean plants is to prevent foreign pathogens from entering the state.

The grapevine leafroll virus was brought into the state on plant material, Grove said.

That disease delays fruit ripening, which increases the risk of freeze.

It's important for the industry that new varieties are continually added to the clean plant center, Judkins said.

Typically, they bring in about 50 new selections a year.

Washington's reputation for clean plants has allowed Inland Desert Nursery to sell plants nationwide and in Canada, Judkins said. Workers Thursday grafted Syrah vines to a different rootstock to be sold out of state.

Cantwell and industry leaders also touted the benefits of two other portions of the farm bill -- the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and the Market Access Program.

Finding research money to keep specialty crops competitive in a global market used to be like scrambling for crumbs, Cantwell said.

The Market Access Program helps expand what the Washington State Wine Commission and the Washington Apple Commission could accomplish on their own, industry officials said. Washington exports about $16 billion worth of agricultural products a year.

Without the support of the Market Access Program, the wine commission would not have been able to grow international sales of Washington wine from $6 million in 2006 to $18.5 million now, Boushey said.

Wineries are aiming to ship wine to Pacific Rim countries and Canada, said Boushey, who is on the commission's board.

The state apple commission has 11 representatives around the world who are working to increase the consumption of Washington apples in foreign countries, said Todd Fryhover, the commission's president.

That support helped the state increase apple exports from a few thousand cartons to more than 4 million cartons in the 2012-13 season, according to Cantwell's office.

Washington grows the most apples in the nation, with last year's harvest at about 113.2 million 40-pound boxes of apples, the state's second largest harvest.

"We require and need export opportunities," Fryhover said.

Fryhover estimated that more than 30 percent of the state's apple crop is exported to other countries.

-- To submit business news, go to bit.ly/bizformtch.

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

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