Agriculture lobbyists declare trio of critical issues
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Washington's farmers and ranchers sent four voices to the Capitol on Jan. 13, each adding a different note to the common message: A healthy agricultural economy is vital to a healthy Washington.
Jim Halstrom, spokesman for the Washington State Horticultural Association, counted off several numbers reflecting ag's overall economic impact: 82,000 jobs, $1.5 billion in wages, $219 million in tax revenue, a $16 billion impact from production and a $35 billion total impact.
"That was 2008, and it's gone up since then," he said. "Year in, year out, we're there, and we're contributing to the stability of the Washington economy."
Acknowledging the tough decisions legislators must make amid a budgetary crisis, Halstrom boiled down ag's request: "The bottom line this year, for us, is 'do no harm.'
"My request of you is to make missionaries out of you and make sure your colleagues understand that," he said before the Senate Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee.
John Stuhlmiller, director of government relations with the Washington State Farm Bureau, said 37 agricultural associations met late last year to hammer out a unified legislative agenda, boiled down to three items.
Taxes and fees
"Fee is a term that is used quite freely that is actually a tax," Stuhlmiller said. For example, a proposed fee for water right permit applicants that would yield "full cost recovery" would be at least $10,000.
"We're willing to do our fair share," he said. But agriculture's role in the economy needs to be recognized, "and let that engine run. Remove burdens ... and don't add any more cost."
Jim Jesernig, spokesman for Washington's wheat, potato and shellfish growers, said agriculture is critical for rural areas of the state, where "the ag footprint dwarfs any other industry or any other job producer."
"That entire industry cannot survive without ag research," he said.
Besides developing better products and management strategies and practices, researchers also provide crisis management.
He cited a 1995 invasion of a resistant form of late blight that drifted into the south Columbia Basin. Without the efforts of Washington State University researchers and the state potato commission, "the entire potato industry and its $500 million farmgate value would have turned into big gobs of gray mush."
Citing a WSU report, Jesernig said the $21.5 million allocated by the state to the Agricultural Research Center in the current fiscal year leverages $70 million in grant money from federal agencies, commodity groups and other sources. "Without that state support, the other pieces collapse."
Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, focused on energy efficiency.
"We have a huge risk of variability in energy costs," he said, noting that 16 percent of energy used in the state is related to agriculture.
Gordon described a state-supported pilot project -- Energy Efficiency in Washington Agriculture -- that offers producers self-assessment software tools, training, expert consultation and documentation.
Cost-share arrangements are available and can cover up to 100 percent of the cost, he said.