A single member of the U.S. House is holding up billions of dollars in emergency aid for farmers hard hit by natural disasters over the last two years.

The $19.1 billion relief package includes just over $3 billion in farm disaster assistance — including $11 million for Oregon hazelnut orchards damaged by heavy snow in February and $3 million for Rogue Valley winegrowers whose grapes were affected by wildfire smoke.

Lawmakers spent months debating more controversial provisions in the bill — such as $900 million for Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from the 2017 hurricane season. The Senate finally passed the deal on May 23, though it stalled in the House during a special session the next day as Congress rushed to adjourn for a week-long Memorial Day recess.

House Democrats scheduled a procedural vote requiring unanimous consent, but Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, objected because many legislators had already left the Capitol. Roy also argued for more funding to address immigration at the southern border, which was not included in the package.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the deal should pass easily once Congress reconvenes in early June.

Both Merkley and fellow Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden touted earmarks in the bill for local farmers. Merkley, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, described the package as a “big win for Oregon and communities across the West.”

“With a voice from Oregon at the table, this disaster relief bill includes significant support for producers across the West who were affected by wildfires, such as Oregon winegrowers; help for those affected by severe winter storms, including Oregon hazelnut growers; and millions of dollars to replenish Forest Service programs that were raided in 2018 to pay for fire suppression,” Merkley said in a statement.

Oregon hazelnuts

According to a report by Pacific Agricultural Survey LLC, 3,332 acres of mature hazelnut trees were at risk of damage by 2019 winter storms. That accounts for roughly 12% of mature hazelnut acres industry-wide.

Oregon is by far the leading producer of hazelnuts in the U.S., with about 99% of the crop grown in the Willamette Valley.

Garry Rodakowski grows about 60 acres of hazelnuts along the McKenzie River east of Eugene. During a three-day period at the end of February, he said the region experienced 20-plus inches of snow, causing limbs and branches to break, and in some cases, entire trees to fall.

“These are whole trees. The roots just pop out of the ground,” said Rodakowski, who also serves as chairman of the Oregon Hazelnut Commission. “That amount of snow, they just can’t hold up.”

It took Rodakowski two months working seven days a week to gather all the dead wood on the ground in his two orchards, he said. Where the trees are spaced farther apart, he was able to haul out material with a tractor. Where trees are spaced closer together, he is shredding and burning the wood directly on the ground.

“There was so much wood that broke out,” Rodakowski said. “When one of those limbs would break, it would hit another one of those trees. It was just a domino effect.”

Rodakowski does not yet know how much money he stands to lose because of the storm. In 50 years, he said he has never heard of government relief for hazelnuts and hopes the disaster package can help offset extra labor costs.

Grapes, wildfires and hemp

Meanwhile, another severe wildfire season across Southern Oregon and Northern California in 2018 led to concerns about smoke taint in wine.

Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, based in Rutherford, Calif., rejected 2,000 tons of grapes from Rogue Valley growers just before harvest, worth an estimated $4 million. Due to the timing, most fruit was stranded and left to rot on the vine.

Four wineries based in the Willamette Valley — including Willamette Valley Vineyards, King Estate Winery, Silvan Ridge Winery and The Eyrie Vineyards — banded together to create “Oregon Solidarity,” buying 140 tons of affected grapes to create a special vintage of Pinot noir, Chardonnay and rosé.

Proceeds from sales of the wines will go to support Rogue Valley growers, though Christine Clair, winery director at Willamette Valley Vineyards, said the group also advocated for additional federal aid.

Jim Bernau, founder and CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards, said they will continue to work with Rogue Valley growers to make sure they submit applications for full and partial losses.

“I’m happy for all the winegrowers (who) were literally left hanging last fall,” Bernau said. “Many of them didn’t have crop insurance or the opportunity to find their grapes a home due to the short cancellation notice.”

The disaster relief bill also includes $720 million for the U.S. forest Service to reimburse the agency for firefighting costs in 2018 pulled from non-fire accounts — a practice known as “fire borrowing” that has since been eliminated by Congress.

{span class=”css-901oao css-16my406 r-1qd0xha r-ad9z0x r-bcqeeo r-qvutc0” dir=”auto”}The package also requires the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. to make crop insurance available to hemp farmers. Industrial hemp was decriminalized in the 2018 Farm Bill.{/span}

{span class=”css-901oao css-16my406 r-1qd0xha r-ad9z0x r-bcqeeo r-qvutc0” dir=”auto”}”Now that hemp production is legal, there should be no question about hemp farmers’ access to crop insurance,” Wyden said.{/span}


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