Speaking in Pasco on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called on Congress to pass the 2013 Farm Bill.
The legislation -- on the floor for debate in the Senate -- would increase jobs in the Mid-Columbia, help farmers boost exports and fund research into developing new ways to fight plant pests and disease, Cantwell said.
The senator said she hopes Congress will get the bill wrapped up by next week. The current extension is set to expire Sept. 30 at the end of the fiscal year.
Cantwell made her remarks at Allied Potato Northwest, a processing facility in Pasco, which several years ago began shipping potatoes to Vietnam with help from the farm bill's Market Access Program.
Derek Davenport, the company's general manager, said the Market Access Program has helped develop new markets overseas -- creating jobs, bringing in revenue and promoting business in foreign trade.
Allied has 10 full-time employees; during potato harvest, that number increases to 50. The company grows several varieties of round, white potatoes on 3,000 acres in the Mid-Columbia. The entire crop is shipped to domestic and foreign potato chip processing plants.
Potatoes are Washington's third-largest agricultural crop, supporting 23,500 jobs and bringing in $4.6 billion per year, according to the state Potato Commission. Franklin County has about 33,000 acres of potatoes and Benton County about 27,000 acres.
The Columbia Basin -- including Grant, Franklin, Benton and Adams counties -- produces $2.4 billion worth of agricultural products from more than 4,000 farms, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
One of the Farm Bill's key provisions is funding for research into crop plant diseases and pests. One disease, Zebra Chip, causes dark stripes inside affected potatoes, ruining their value on the fresh market.
Potatoes affected with Zebra Chip disease are sold for animal feed or -- after being bleached -- used to make dehydrated products.
"The disease can be absolutely devastating," said Jim Crosslin, a plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Prosser.
"In 2011, a couple of big growers in the Mid-Columbia lost millions," Crosslin said. "In 2005, one Texas grower lost his entire crop, 1,000 acres"
The Farm Bill also would fully fund the Clean Plant Network at $60 million per year. Washington State University's Prosser Research and Extension Center is the main center for the network in the Northwest, providing disease-free plant materials to thousands of grape and hop growers.
"We need to pass a farm bill now to support jobs at Allied Potato Northwest and across Central Washington," Cantwell said in a press release. "Here in the Tri-Cities, we see that the farm bill is truly a jobs bill. Farm bill programs provide critical support to our local growers and producers and help sell Tri-Cities' agriculture products overseas. These programs also help fight diseases and pests to increase crop yields and drive job growth. That's why I am urging Congress to pass a long-term farm bill as a top priority."
The Farm Bill would help Washington farmers do what they do best, "grow produce and export it around the world," Cantwell said.
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