Good Point - Jim McFerson
This Sausage Is Good for You
Everyone knows about sausage, right? Even if you love it, you don't really want to know how it's made, just enjoy the product. For the past few months, we have been treated to the political equivalent of sausage making, as the Farm Bill has wound its tortuous way towards finished legislation. Thousands of ingredients have been dumped into the Congressional grinder, with a recipe based on special interests, missed deadlines, repeated extensions, machinations, grandstanding, finger-pointing, hand-waving, etc. Then, voila! The package is assembled, passed, vetoed, and the veto overridden quicker than you can say "microwave."
But, not so fast. A strange clerical error must be remediedan entire section of the bill was missing in the copy sent to the White House. Even the government has problem with government paperwork. However, at this writing, it appears there will be a quick instant replay, this time with the missing pages restored. Let's assume that happens, if only for the sake of this column. The bill passes again, is vetoed again, is overridden again, and becomes law. Was it a pretty process? No. Does it have all the ingredients the tree fruit industry might want? No. Can we enjoy it anyway? Yes.
Although many tongue-clucking commentaries in newspapers, blogs, and even the ag press have appraised the many imperfections in the Farm Bill, it might be worthwhile to recognize that it does contain some things that are very, very good for our tree fruit industries, and for specialty crops across the country.
For the first time ever, specialty crops will receive the kind of public investment that begins to recognize their significance to this country's agriculture. That investment is both an historic policy change and a meaningful initial investment of $3 billion in mandatory spending over the five-year life of the bill. There will be huge opportunities for specialty crop industries and their research communities in five general areas:
- Competitiveness grants
- Specialty Crop Research Initiative
- Pest and disease programs
- International market access
- Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
It is particularly gratifying that four of these areas contain more specific language directly addressing many of the research priorities developed in the National Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap, and subsequently reinforced by other specialty crop initiatives in tree nuts, grapes, berries, citrus, and nursery/landscape.
For example, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative directs $230 million towards plant genomics, genetics, and breeding; precision agriculture; production efficiency; and product quality. The funding is intended to be awarded on a competitive basis, with a requirement for industry involvement and matching funding. Projects will be required to contain a significant extension component, so the research actually has an impact on producers and processors. This is exactly the kind of approach that we have advocated in the roadmapseeking investment in priority research areas, recognizing that multi-institutional and multidisciplinary research and extension teams will be required to bring research results into the real world of the orchard or packing house, and providing funds of sufficient magnitude to effectively address the challenge.
Equally exciting, a key USDA agency, the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, which is the source for most of the funding going to our land-grant institutions like Washington State University, Oregon State University, and the University of Idaho, has prepared a draft plan that more specifically identifies areas of emphasis for funding. These areas align perfectly with those identified in the roadmap:
- Geospatial technologies
- Precision agriculture
- Biological pest controls
The CSREES indicates that this initiative will support previously underfunded areas and involve systems-levels projects, once again acknowledging that single researchers or even institutions cannot put together the kind of resources necessary to have a significant, sustained impact on specialty crop producers and processors.
In my last column, I highlighted the transformation our tree fruit industry is undergoing, a transformation led by progressive individual owner-operators, orchard and packing shed managers, professional consultants, and even entire firms, who are adopting, adapting, and improving the innovative practices and technologies developed by research and extension scientists, many of them supported with funding from growers via the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.
With the funding opportunities represented in the new Farm Bill, these folks now have an opportunity to compete for significant new projects in new areas. Their work in automation, geospatial technologies, precision agriculture, and biological pest controls is exactly what producers and processors require to stay globally competitive and profitable. So, can the tree fruit researcher and extension community compete at the national level? Absolutely.
In a recent national competitive program, three projects that have received funding from the Research Commission were awarded grants through the CSREES totaling nearly $1.2 million to study the genomics, genetics, and breeding of apples, cherries, and pears. This success leverages our grower dollars eight- to tenfold. Two of these scientists are relatively new faculty at WSU: Dr. Amit Dhingra and Dr. Cameron Peace. The third is a well-established, familiar scientist from Michigan State University, Dr. Amy Iezzoni. Together these scientists and the co-investigators on their grants are leading efforts to sequence genomes, discover and characterize genes impacting fruit quality, and improve harvested fruit size. This is the kind of success I predict will follow, once scientists from the Pacific Northwest, and their collaborators from throughout the world, are able to compete for funds, starting this fall.
Another couple of elements of the Farm Bill are of special import for tree fruits. One is an $80 million allocation for research in organic systems, with tremendous potential for our rapidly expanding organic sector. Tree fruit and grape industries will also benefit directly from a $25 million investment in the National Clean Plant Network. One of the key labs in this network will be located at WSU Prosser and immediately improve the availability of virus-free propagation material and diagnostic services.
The Farm Bill also contains very important and very beneficial provisions in trade, food and nutrition programs, and market promotionall of them directed at enhancing the competitive abilities of our tree fruit producers and processors. Although it may not have been pretty in the making, and the final product may not be to everyone\'s taste, this Farm Bill does far more to satisfy the appetites of the nation\'s specialty crop industries than previous ones. It represents the kind of investment at the federal level that will accelerate the necessary transformation taking place in our industry and validates the premise of the National Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap.
This column would never have been written, nor would the Farm Bill have contained as many favorable ingredients for tree fruits, without the contributions of some excellent chefs: Jim Cranney (formerly with the U.S. Apple Association), Mike Willett (Northwest Horticultural Council), Phil Baugher (Adams County Nursery), Dariusz Swietlik (U.S. Department of Agriculture), Herb Aldwinckle (Cornell University, New York), and Fran Pierce (WSU) labored over the past five years in the effort over this particular sausage.