PASCO — Gov. Chris Gregoire, citing damage to an array of Washington crops from "our worst May in history," asked the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on Thursday to designate 29 counties as farm disaster areas and make them eligible for federal help.
The governor made the announcement in Pasco at Zen-Noh Hay, where hay is prepared for export to Japan, during the first of her two-day "Feeding Washington" agricultural tour that will include a handful of stops in Eastern Washington.
Persistent rains and cool temperatures in May hit hay growers particularly hard, affecting up to 90 percent of the valuable first cutting, said hay farmer Drex Gauntt of Kennewick, president of the Washington Hay Growers Association.
Up to one-third of a growers' annual production by volume comes from the first cutting, he said.
"Columbia Basin hay is known worldwide for our consistently high quality and high value. The weather has taken away our ability to provide that product," Gauntt said.
Hay growers weren't alone. Freezing temperatures in April hurt cherry growers in Yakima County and to the north; severe wind, freezing temperatures in early spring and extended cool weather affected asparagus production in the Mid-Columbia; and excessive rain and cold inhibited planting or caused poor pollination in other counties.
Asparagus growers still are tallying their losses, but up to 25 percent of the crop this year could have been lost, said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.
"If this is not the worst season on record for Washington asparagus growers, it certainly ties the record," Schreiber said. "It was a bad season, and it was entirely weather-related."
The governor's request includes disaster declarations for Adams, Benton, Chelan, Clark, Columbia, Cowlitz, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Grays Harbor, Island, King, Kitsap, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lewis, Mason, Okanogan, Pacific, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Thurston, Wahkiakum, Walla Walla, Whatcom and Yakima counties.
"It's been an all-around problematic spring for us in terms of crops," said Gregoire, who was accompanied by state Department of Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse, Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant and Commerce Director Rogers Weed on the tour.
"We are in the worst economic times we've faced in 80 years, so you would think Mother Nature would help us out in this time of crisis," she said.
The USDA disaster declaration would allow farmers in the primary counties, as well as adjoining counties, to apply for disaster assistance payments through several programs administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency.
"So at the end of the day, we could have every county in the state of Washington eligible for some assistance," said Gregoire, who last sought disaster assistance from the federal government during the 2005 drought.
Farmers also may be eligible for emergency low-interest loans from USDA to cover production and farm property losses. Newhouse said farmers should contact their county office of the federal Farm Service Agency to report losses.
Hay growers may need the help. Since the first hay cutting was either cut and left unbaled because of rain or left standing, many farmers could see their second cutting affected as well, said Gauntt, who farms in Walla Walla County.
"The yield overall this year could be down 10 to 15 percent," he said.
Later Thursday, the governor and her group visited Red Mountain to hail an agreement that will supply Yakima River water to 1,785 acres within and near the Red Mountain American Viticultural area, thanks to a $12.5 million project that will include construction of a diversion at Kiona to deliver water to the mountain through a pressurized, metered pipe system.
Ecology estimates the project ultimately will inject $9.2 million into the economy, create up to 103 jobs and help grow the region's thriving wine industry.
And earlier Thursday, the governor's party visited a Walla Walla pump exchange project that will ensure water flows in summer that are vital to Chinook salmon, endangered bull trout and summer steelhead.
Gregoire planned Thursday night to visit with a Yakima River Basin water enhancement work group to hear about a plan for increasing water supply and improving the health of the river.
Water "is going to be even more critical" for Washington agricultural producers, particularly if the state is to achieve a goal the governor set to increase agricultural exports from the state by 30 percent in five years, she said.
Gregoire also said she spoke recently with federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about a trucking dispute that prompted Mexico last year to impose a 20 percent tariff on Washington frozen potatoes and 90 other American products.
The tariffs contributed to a $19.7 million decline in the value of exported Washington agricultural products to Mexico in 2009 compared with 2008. Mexico has been the No. 2 international export market for Washington frozen potatoes.
LaHood has a proposal that Gregoire says could solve the dispute. "We desperately need to get our crops there (into Mexico)," she said.
-- Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535; email@example.com.