Washington’s stake in farm bills’ trade provisions

Washington cherries in boxes
Now that the U.S. House and Senate have passed their respective versions of the farm bill, both chambers will negotiate what they hope to see in the final legislation. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Both the U.S. House and Senate and have passed their respective versions of the farm bill which would make changes to major U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs dealing with farming, including farmer assistance programs that protect farmers from declines in the market.

The farm bill currently in effect passed in 2014 and expires in September. The House version narrowly passed its version of the farm bill on June 21 in a 213-211 vote. One week later, the Senate passed its bill in an 86-11 vote.

Both bills would restructure the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which allows 40 million people to receive an average of $127 per month in food stamps. The House version would now require able-bodied adults with children aged six or younger to work 20 hours a week in order to keep the SNAP benefits, while the Senate version does not include this work requirement.

The House version would also address nutritional standards for school lunches, remove the Clean Water Rule, relax pesticide requirements by blocking local governments from adopting pesticide regulations and would eliminate the need for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to control weeds near water, allow farmers to buy into cheaper but less expansive health insurance plans and would provide funding to expand high-speed broadband access in rural areas.

The Senate version would keep pesticide laws in place, give a boost to organic farmers by funding programs that connect farmers with local consumers and would tighten requirements for some farm subsidies.

Mark Powers, President of the Northwest Horticultural Council (NHC), told Lens that Washington producers are hopeful that the lawmakers will keep in mind requests brought forward by agricultural stakeholders, especially from a trade-dependent state like Washington.

“The sections of it most important to the produce industry in the U.S., or the Pacific Northwest and Washington state, comes down to the trade title and trade development programs which encompasses the market access program and technical assistance for specialty crops.”

Those are especially important when there are several retaliatory actions facing growers related to trade, he added.

“What it allows the producers to do is leverage their private monies with public funds to promote products overseas,” he said.

“It might assist to be able to counter some of the either negative perceptions out there in a particular country or try to increase purchases in consumption in countries where you don’t have retaliatory tariffs and …keep the fruit still in overseas markets rather than having to sell it in the U.S.…”

An example would be selling apples to China when there is a 50-percent tariff. In that case, Washington producers might look at shipping their apples to Indonesia.

“In order to do so, they need to promote more and try and get that country to consume more. This market access program exists to try and generate more demand.”

Powers added that the bills contain an important focus on research.

“It’s something we feel is critically important….it singles out certain things like plant breeding and genetics, how to improve crops and root systems.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) said the House version is important for giving a helping hand to agricultural stakeholders across the country.

“The Farm Bill provides much-needed certainty for farmers and ranchers, who continue to struggle with the lowest farm income in decades and the damaging consequences of retaliatory tariffs,” said Newhouse in an online statement, referring to the passage of the House version.

“The Farm Bill supports important agriculture research, reauthorizes market access, and bolsters the farm safety net,” he continued. “It improves the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through instituting work and training requirements for able-bodied adults without any cuts in services.”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) told colleagues during the Senate’s vote on its farm bill that Washington’s agricultural sector produces 164,000 jobs and the state’s ports export $180 billion in economic activity. Across the U.S., the food and agriculture industry make up 11 percent of American jobs.

“To say this bill is an important economic tool is an understatement,” said Cantwell, citing the provisions which would help open up markets for U.S. farmers.

Cantwell referenced how U.S. exports gained access to the South Korean market more than a decade ago and Washington farmers have seen an 80-percent increase in potato exports and a 200-percent increase in cherry exports since then.

She added that the USDA market development programs have a great return on investment of $28 for each dollar spent.

“When you are opening up a market to sell U.S. products abroad, we are spending a little bit of dollars…that is a huge investment for us to export our product into those countries.”

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