State Ag Dept: Funding needed to offset tariffs

Apple farmer
The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) is asking state legislators for funding to help local agricultural producers better promote and sell their goods in the face of barriers to trade. Photo: Scott Bauer

Amidst ongoing trade negotiations and retaliatory tariffs, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) is putting forward a proposal to assist state growers who have struggled to find new avenues for their products due to uncertain foreign market prospects.

This week, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) has made a $6 million appropriations request to the state legislature to expand the state’s international market program for agricultural products, create a state market access program and better brand and promote Washington farm goods locally.

Chris McGann, spokesman for WSDA, told Lens: “In general, we are looking at some pretty big changes in global trade policy, and a lot of uncertainty and disruption, especially with some of our long-term trade relationships.

“When we see these foreign partners looking for new relationships with U.S. competitors, we feel like we need to do what we can.”

He added that an estimated $1 billion of state agricultural products are potential targets of retaliatory tariffs, which makes up an important portion of the state’s economy.

McGann said that the proposal takes a multi-pronged approach. If the department is able to secure the funds, the appropriations would go towards expanding the existing international marketing program and providing funds for more in-and out-bound trade missions.

Washington is one of five states that does not have a promotion program for state agricultural products. Other states’ programs include “Fresh from Florida,” “Kentucky Proud” and “California Grown.”

“These are indicators for consumers to say this is a regional product we want to support, or we identify as being high quality,” said McGann. “A brand program would help…expand markets for our producers and strengthen their position.

The funding would also go towards the small farm direct marketing program which helps small farmers sell their products and navigate food assistance programs such as food banks or farm-to-school lunch programs.

“The idea is if there is a restriction in our ability to sell to existing customers in foreign markets, then we…help look for markets and customers and then keep these programs going…” said McGann.

State tree fruit growers have already reported large detrimental effects from tariffs, at approximately $86 million in losses for cherries and $129 million for apples across Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Some buyers purchased goods ahead of time knowing the tariffs would be implemented, so the full impact on those products are yet to be seen.

Jon Devaney, President of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association (WSTFA), told Lens that investing in market access for the tree fruit industry is especially important because one-third of that sector’s products are exported overseas.

DeVaney told Lens that WSTFA had a conversation with WSDA Director Derek Sandison to talk about the department’s proposal before its release. He added that the request followed industry input from members within the agricultural community in talks with Governor Jay Inslee on the effects of the retaliatory tariffs.

“As trade disputes are fought over, agricultural producers are suffering and are making rapid changes to respond to fluctuations in overseas markets…they are facing significant headwinds from the tariffs,” said DeVaney.

He added that although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is looking into direct payments for farmers, WSDA is proposing to take existing state dollars to assist those producers with removing trade barriers, increasing the ability for growers to promote their products oversea and helping find and expand alternate markets.

“It certainly will be helpful to have additional resources to work to open and expand markets and…offset some of the impacts in affected markets to do additional consumer promotion,” said DeVaney, adding that the success of these changes would likely depend on how trade negotiations proceed, as well as how receptive consumers are to promotions.

Washington state consumers tend to be near the forefront of some of these food trends, he continued, and so local interest in buying state-grown products could indicate additional gains could be made at the local level. However, that would do little to affect apple producers, as about 97 percent of Washington apples are sold outside the state.

“We can’t absorb all the volume of fruit in the state, but every little bit helps; especially for growers who see that their traditional customers in foreign markets will be harder to access in the short or medium term,” said DeVaney, adding that WSTFA appreciates WSDA looking for ways to “use some of its existing authority to try and help the industry in this uncertain time.”

WSDA Director Sandison said it will be “difficult to gauge reaction to the proposed request” since the legislature is not currently in session.

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