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Christmas tree, organic growers helped by farm bill

Farm bill evades a political dustup to provide marketing help for Christmas tree growers, and evens the playing field for organic growers.

By Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Published on February 6, 2014 9:51AM

It took a two-year trip through Washington D.C.’s political mire, but a per-tree assessment to help promote Christmas tree sales is part of the farm bill package approved by Congress.

Meanwhile, the Northwest’s organic growers say the bill provides them a break on crop insurance. Their crops often are more expensive to grow and bring a higher price than conventional crops, but previous policy judged insurance claims only on the value of conventional products.

Christmas tree growers, faced with lagging sales and competition from artificial trees, sought for some time to establish an assessment to pay for media marketing work and cross-promotional campaigns with major companies. The USDA was set to approve it, but in November 2011 the conservative Heritage Foundation pounced to portray the fee as the Obama administration’s “tax” on Christmas.

The media storm that followed was “really messy,” said Bryan Ostlund, of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association.

“It had nothing to do with the Obama administration at all,” he said. “It blew up in the press like none of us had ever seen before and probably never will again. It was something to behold.”

The White House and USDA backed off and the idea sat on the far back burner until the farm bill finally began moving through Congress the past few months. Ostlund said U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., spearheaded the move to include the assessment in the farm bill approved by the House of Representatives.

Christmas trees are big business. Oregon leads the nation in tree production, with about 6.4 million harvested annually and sales valued at $110 million. North Carolina is second in tree production, Michigan is third and Pennsylvania and Washington are tied for next spot, with 2.3 million trees. Washington’s annual sales value is $35 million. Most trees are sold out of state, some overseas.

Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, which Schrader represents, includes the state’s top Christmas tree growing areas.

Ostlund said if the assessment is in the final bill, the 2014 tree harvest will mark the first assessment year, and marketing efforts could begin in 2015.

Nonetheless, the Heritage Foundation has resumed its opposition. A December post on the The Foundry website (http://blog.heritage.org/2013/12/06/congress-wants-tax-christmas-tree/) continued to call the fee a tax: “A 15-cent tax may not seem like much. However, taxes are a death by a thousand cuts. One of those cuts shouldn’t come from the Christmas tree. One way to actually hurt the image of the Christmas tree is to make it a symbol of taxation during the holiday season.”

Organic growers have long seen the crop insurance issue as a matter of fairness. They had to pay 5 percent higher for coverage, but were reimbursed for damages at the value of less expensive conventional crops. The USDA was working on the issue, but by the time the farm debate began had decided prices only on organic corn, cotton, avocados, soybeans, processing tomatoes and a couple types of stone fruit.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced a farm bill amendment last summer that evens things out. Oregon Tilth, a Corvallis group that certifies organic growers, said on its website that the additional cost and lower payouts were the main reason organic producers don’t purchase crop insurance.

“Merkley’s amendment ensures that organic farmers will be compensated for losses at the relevant organic prices,” the group said.

The bill also includes an organic check-off program, in which producers contribute to research and marketing programs. Some organic advocacy groups oppose such programs, saying the funds are controlled big food processing companies.

“Checkoff research is often devoted to (the) goals of big agribusiness interests, not projects that would help address the real needs of farmers or consumers,” the group Food & Water Watch said on its website. “Rather than support research that could help reorient agriculture production to minimize the health and environmental impacts of food production, most commodity checkoff funding has gone towards marketing efforts to try to diminish critics of big agriculture (including organic and sustainable production and the local food movement).”


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