Although a new federal spending bill included nearly $60 million for sustainable and organic agriculture, few Wallowa County producers expect to see any benefits despite federal and state efforts to promote such farming methods.
The $1.4 trillion 2020 spending bill was signed by President Donald Trump on Friday, Dec. 19, to avert a government shutdown. Notice of the bill came in a press release from U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.
Pete Schreder, the Oregon State University Extension livestock, range and natural resources agent for Wallowa County, said the county’s organic market is rather small and without knowing the strings attached to the funding he couldn’t be sure of the effects.
However, he said, “It provides some opportunities for individuals thinking of changing methods … toward an organic market.”
This opportunity isn’t going to convert a lot of people,” he said, “but if they were thinking of transitioning, it might help them. … It’s showing there’s an effort to provide that opportunity.”
Merkley’s spokeswoman Sara Hottman, emphasized his help securing $37 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture education and research program, an increase in the National Organic Program to $15 million and $6 million to help farmers transition from conventional to organic farming practices.”
“For Wallowa County,” Hottman said, “this means that folks have access to competitive grant funding. Oregon in particular has benefitted from organic research programs and the Organic Transition Program, which provide education to farmers who are newly adopting organic practices. The program will help transitioning producers better understand the economic and environmental benefits of organic production.”
As an example of grants to establish new organic crops that are available under the transition program, Hottman cited a program to incentives growing organic blueberries on the east side of the Cascades. These and other grant opportunities are available through OSU Extension, Hottman said.
Hank Stern, a spokesman for Wyden, said that while there’s no per-county dollar estimate, these increased resources will help farmers working in northeast Oregon and throughout rural parts of the state if they are interested in organic and sustainable agriculture. That’s a win all-around for both the rural economy and a sustainable future.
Patrick Thiel, who operates Prairie Creek Farm near Joseph and Lostine, is one of the few fully organic commercial farmers in the county. He said none of the ag spending increases directly affects him.
“It sounds like the government’s maintaining programs they already have in place,” he said.
Thiel said he is pleased to see added funding for the Organic Transition Program, which helps conventional farmers with some of the costs in switching to organic. Although the $6 million is small by comparison to other programs, he still called it “very significant” given the high cost and high risk of transitioning from conventional to organic farming.
“That part of the spending gives farmers the tools to make it,” he said.
The only real help Thiel has received from federal programs so far is a cost-share reimbursement for organic certification fees. But even that is limited. This past year, he received $550 of a possible $750 from the feds.
Mostly it’s the large-scale organic industry and research at state universities that benefit organic growers that seem to receive the bulk of federal assistance.
Other organic and sustainable growers in the county welcome the thought, but, like Theil, are skeptical of receiving any direct support.
Kurt Melville grows small grains on the no-till Cornerstone Farms near Joseph. He said they have one parcel of 25 to 40 acres that’s been pasture for 30 years that they’ve considered farming organic.
“If there’s funding available to do more research and trials, we’ll continue to look into it,” Melville said when told of the funding bill becoming law. He said added funding may or may not help develop herbicides and pesticides that can mesh with organic practices.
“It’s like throwing money at renewable energies like wind and solar,” he said. “If the government comes along and says here’s money to test this out, I think that’s a good thing.”
Self-described hobby farmer Wendy McCullough raises 27 meat goats and hay on her 20-acre Sally B. Farms next to some of Melville’s land. She said she uses organic methods but her operation is not certified.
She said she wasn’t aware of the ag component in the recent spending bill. But her main concern over the funding going to organic agriculture is big ag getting a share.
She has no plan to transition to organic, so she’s not interested in much of the funding.
“I don’t believe in it,” she said. “It’s fine for small companies, but when big ag gets involved, it’s wrong for all of us.”
Bob Stangel, one of the owners of the Stangel Bison Ranch, said he’s not so sure any of the funding in the recently approved spending package would pertain to his operation.
“We practice sustainable agriculture,” Stangel said. “There’s also the new buzzword, ‘regenerative’ agriculture where, if done properly, livestock keep the land healthy.”
Other agricultural and rural provisions in the 2020 spending bill include support for production of CBD oil as well as hemp, improvement of water conservation and use by irrigation districts, rural housing, and rural business development.