'When people suffer disaster, the program has to be there at that moment'
By MITCH LIES
KEIZER, Ore. -- Farmers were shortchanged in the nine-month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill that Congress passed, according to Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
But Oregon's junior U.S. senator said he is confident the state's farmers will fare better in the next farm bill, which he expects Congress to pass before the extension expires.
Merkley said last-minute negotiations to avoid tax increases and spending cuts associated with the so-called fiscal cliff led to passage of the makeshift farm bill.
"What happened is on the evening of Dec. 31, (Senate minority leader) Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stuffed his own personal farm bill into the deal and it took out the investment in specialty crop research that was important to Oregon," Merkley said. "It took out fairness for organic farmers .... and it took out the disaster assistance for the farmers and ranchers affected by the fires in Oregon and the drought across the nation, which I think is outrageous.
"When people suffer disaster, the program has to be there at that moment, not after they possibly have lost the farm eight months later," he said.
Merkley's comments came in a Jan. 9 interview with Capital Press.
"I feel Oregon agriculture got really shortchanged," he said.
"We (the Senate) had a (farm) bill that was worked in the agricultural committee, that had bipartisan support. It was an open amendment process on the floor. And all that work got tossed out at the last second.
"I think all the people who worked so hard on that are going to come back and insist on that being in place before this extension expires," Merkley said.
Merkley was less optimistic about the chances of Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform over the next nine months.
"There has been a five- or six-year interlude in which the parties kind of stepped away from wrestling with immigration reform," Merkley said. "And I think there is much more of a sense, as I listen to my Democratic colleagues, of taking on the complex pieces this year.
"But I also keep in mind that when I was in college in the 1970s, there was a lot of discussion of comprehensive immigration reform, and here we are 35 years later," he said.
"There is a possibility, but I wouldn't put high odds (on it)," Merkley said.
Addressing the U.S. Department of Labor's use of the "hot goods" order on Oregon blueberry farms last summer, Merkley said he is "very concerned about the use of that on perishable goods."
The federal agency issued hot goods orders on three Oregon farms last summer in response to alleged labor law violations. The order is used to prevent goods allegedly produced in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act from entering retail and processing chains.
The three farms agreed to pay the agency $210,000 in back wages and penalties to release their blueberry crops, before the farms were allowed to contest the allegations.
Merkley was among six members of Oregon's seven-member congressional delegation to question the Labor Department's use of the tactics.
"Certainly there has to be fairness to people who are working on farms, but there also has to be a recognition of the special circumstances of perishable goods," he said. "I hope that ... the DOL and the farming community will avoid that situation downstream.
"I guess this next summer will be the test," Merkley said.
Asked during a town hall meeting in Keizer if he supports a proposal to transfer federal lands in Oregon to the state, Merkley said: "I don't know if transfer to the state is the right answer, but I know that much more flexibility is needed. Particularly in our forests, we are sitting here in a situation where we have a lose-lose.
"We have second-growth forests, trees too close together, they are a fire hazard, they are a disease hazard, they are not a healthy ecosystem, and they are not supplying saw logs to the mills," he said.
"And we have our last fragment of mill infrastructure, and we can't afford to lose that," Merkley said.
"I'm going to be working with Sen. (Ron) Wyden (D-Ore.). And I'm obviously very supportive of the governor's process," Merkley said.
Gov. John Kitzhaber last fall convened a group to develop a proposal that Oregon's congressional delegation can bring to Congress to improve management of federal forests in the state.