SM hazelnut trees-fall 2

Oregon hazelnut tree orchard in fall. Leaders of state agriculture departments say farmers across the Western U.S. faced common challenges this past year, including drought, heat waves and incompatibility with carbon markets designed for the Midwest. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Agriculture department leaders from 14 Western states met Monday during the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture's annual meeting to talk about challenges facing farmers in their region.

The leaders talked about concerns over drought, shipping congestion, labor shortages, pest pressure, carbon markets, food safety programs and a desire for expanded disaster assistance.


Nearly every Western state leader — even Hawaii's Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser — said farmers in their state are facing extreme drought.

Alexis Taylor, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said although this weekend's rain in the Willamette Valley was welcome, moisture levels predicted for winter likely won't be enough to replace lost moisture.

"So, we're probably looking at a multi-year drought," said Taylor.

Others agreed, including Kate Greenberg, Colorado Department of Agriculture's commissioner, who said that even though the winter brought "decent snowpack," the state lost most of the runoff to high-elevation parched soils.

NASDA leaders have been advocating drought relief, including about $7 billion in federal disaster assistance to livestock producers.

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, called a recent report measuring her state's record-low reservoir levels the "grim reaper report," and said agricultural leaders need to make long-term plans for water use, infrastructure and conservation.

Expanding assistance

Several department leaders were united in their intention to push Congress for expanded disaster assistance for producers who faced losses due to wildfires, smoke taint, hurricanes, drought, extreme freezing or excessive heat.

The leaders are urging legislators to pass House Resolution 26, or the 2020 WHIP-plus Reauthorization Act, which would expand disaster payments.

"Those changes could be really important for Oregon ag," said Taylor of ODA.

Derek Sandison, director of Washington State Department of Agriculture, said expanded disaster relief would be helpful to Washington producers whose berry, cherry, potato and other crops were damaged by the summer's "heat dome."

Labor shortage

Department leaders were nearly all in unison saying that their departments are short on labor.

"Where the heck did all the people go who worked?" said Jeff Witte, agriculture secretary for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

Witte said his department has many unfilled openings.

Celia Gould, director of Idaho State Department of Agriculture, agreed, saying that although the federal government has poured money into agriculture departments for "new and exciting programs," her department simply doesn't have the bodies to get the work done.

Carbon markets

The concept of a market for carbon credits has been growing in popularity. But many of the West's agriculture department leaders said national carbon plan proposals don't work for Western farmers, where climate, crops, soil types and other factors vary widely.

"Carbon programs designed in the Midwest don’t work for the West," said Ross, of California.

She and others agreed they need to regionalize carbon research and consider including other factors like carbon savings in transportation.


Other topics the leaders discussed included the need for funding from USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to combat grasshopper problems, more investment in state food safety programs and a continued need to address shipping challenges.

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