Oregon is known for its specialty crops. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
As Congress negotiates a new five-year farm bill, farmers from around Oregon asked U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer to make sure their needs aren’t overlooked.
Chavez-DeRemer, a Republican who’s on the House agriculture committee, said Congress aims to pass a farm bill by September, though some fear negotiations could last until 2024. She met with agriculture industry leaders and several farmers at the Oregon Farm Bureau’s Salem office on Tuesday to hear about their needs.
“We’re a small population compared to the other commodities and states that get all the attention when you’re talking about the farm bill,” Chavez-DeRemer said. “I want to make sure that Oregon’s highlighted in that.”
Greg Addington, executive director of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said Oregon farmers didn’t think much about the farm bill when he first started working for the influential advocacy group nearly 30 years ago. Oregon’s $5 billion agricultural industry is among the state’s largest sectors, but the state doesn’t devote extensive acreage to commodity crops, like corn, wheat and soybeans that dominate federal farm subsidies.
But as the farm bill has grown over the years to include specialty crops such as fruits, vegetables and nursery-grown plants that Oregon is known for, the state has seen more benefits from the farm bill, Addington said.
Jon Iverson, owner of the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm near Woodburn, said Oregon farmers want more federal research funding targeted at the diverse crops grown in the Northwest. He and Brenda Frketich, who grows ryegrass seed and hazelnuts at Kirsch Family Farms in rural Marion County, said the farm bill also needs to take into account the different ways Oregon and other states grow grass.
For farmers in most of the country, grass is grown as a cover crop – it’s often planted in winter and its purpose is to cover soil and protect it from erosion. But many Oregon farmers grow grasses to sell seeds across the country and around the world.
“You can’t send weeds across your nation,” Frketich said.
Need for child care
Frketich, Iverson and Polk County farmer Kathy Hadley all have young children, and they told Chavez-DeRemer some solutions for rural child care should be included in the farm bill. The American Farm Bureau lists access and incentives for rural child care among its top priorities for the farm bill, as more women run farms.
Iverson’s wife was a teacher, but she stopped working and now cares full-time for their children after their child care center closed. They didn’t have other options in the area, he said.
“If you want to try to raise a family or a farm, you have to pick one or the other,” Iverson said.
Hadley said she can’t drop her children off at a child care center in town – nor, she added jokingly, can she send them out to graze or lock them in cages the way she could with livestock. She hired a nanny, but it’s expensive. Other farming families she knows pay babysitters under the table to avoid paying employer taxes.
She said tax credits or the ability to count a nanny as a farm employee could offset some of the costs that make it hard for mothers to succeed as farmers.
“The bulk of our expendable income right now is paying for that child care, which I know is true for a lot of families,” Hadley said. “But not being in town, we don’t have the other options that are cheaper.”
Federal food aid
John Zielinski, the owner of the Salem-based E.Z. Orchards Farm Market, told Chavez-DeRemer that the farm bill needs to remain a farm-and-food bill. About 85% of the farm bill spending goes toward nutrition, primarily the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP which serves low-income families.
Chavez-DeRemer said she hasn’t heard of a push this year to separate the nutrition aspects of the bill from farm subsidies, as has been proposed in prior negotiations. Zielinski said Congress shouldn’t separate farm and nutrition spending.
“It’s food and the use of food,” he said. “They’re tied together.”
Chavez-DeRemer said she grew up in California’s Central Valley, a big agricultural center, and is familiar with the importance of the West Coast and Northwest in farming.
“Probably half the battle when we’re in Congress is trying to tell that story about how hard it is,” Chavez-DeRemer said. “How difficult it is not only to do it in general with whatever weather events or being outdoors while you’re trying to farm and feed the world, but then when you have the regulatory framework around it.”
Chavez-DeRemer said she and U.S. Rep. Andrea Salinas, an Oregon Democrat who also serves on the agricultural committee, have committed to working across the aisle on agricultural issues. But she cut a scheduled 15 minutes for questions from reporters to six minutes, not leaving time to discuss her work with Salinas or specifics in the farm bill.
On Tuesday, Salinas also discussed the bill – but 25 miles to the north as she toured a vineyard outside Dayton and heard about the wine industry’s concerns. Grapes are the state’s eighth biggest commodity, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
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