In Short

Oregon joins coalition of Western states urging USDA to do more for region’s farmers and ranchers

By: - December 13, 2022 5:45 am

Oregon farms are struggling through a prolonged drought. (Yadira Lopez/Malheur Enterprise)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should be doing more to help Western farmers and ranchers, 14 U.S. senators said in a recent letter to the agency. 

On Dec. 7, U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon joined 12 other U.S. Democratic senators from Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Washington and two Republican senators from Utah, calling on the agency to allocate more funding and staff to help the region deal with the prolonged drought. 

The senators addressed the letter to Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The American West is in crisis,” they wrote, referencing a 22-year mega-drought that has left farmers and ranchers in a precarious position without enough water in six major Western water basins, including the Columbia River Basin.

They asked the USDA to address understaffing in its Western field offices and to prioritize hiring staff who have expertise in Western agriculture. The senators wrote that the lack of engineers and experts among USDA staff with expertise in Western water conservation has created a large backlog and many delays for projects that are meant to help farmers and ranchers in the region address the drought.

Congress recently allocated $20 billion under the Inflation Reduction Act to the USDA to help the agency tackle its backlog of requests from farmers and ranchers for conservation assistance and to help them address climate change emergencies. 

But, according to the senators, the agency has done a poor job offering support to the West. 

“The dire drought conditions in the West require more resources and even more creative and tailored solutions through USDA programs,” they wrote, “particularly given many existing programs do not translate well to the needs of Western agriculture.” 

USDA is still soliciting proposals and public input on spending priorities for the funding, which can be submitted until Dec. 21.  

The senators called on USDA to support water conservation projects that are specific to crop production in the West, to invest in improving water infrastructure for the region’s farmers, to offer more relevant technical assistance, to help protect Western lands that are eroding due to drought and to support floodplain restoration projects across rangelands that can help retain water. 

In a statement, a Wyden spokesman, Hank Stern, said the senator has heard continued concerns about the drought from farmers and ranchers around the state. 

“Democrats secured more funding to address severe drought in the Inflation Reduction Act, and Sen. Wyden signed on to the letter to make it clear that he wants Oregon prioritized as those funds are disbursed,” Stern wrote.


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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.