Merkley unveils ag bill that includes tens of millions for Oregon priorities

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, announced Tuesday that he has won support in the Senate agricultural spending bill for a wide variety of agriculture, housing, food assistance, and rural business priorities that will benefit Oregon’s farms and families throughout the state.

Merkley will now push for this bill to pass and be signed into law as Congress negotiates a spending package to avert a government shutdown in December.

“Every year, I travel to each of Oregon’s 36 counties to hear from each of Oregon’s diverse communities about the issues that matter most to them,” said Merkley, who co-authored today’s bill. “In every corner of our state, I’ve heard about the need for affordable housing and reliable, good paying jobs—especially as the coronavirus crisis’ toll on our health and economy continues to deepen. I fought hard to ensure that those insights, and the specific ideas and priorities Oregonians have shared with me, would make it into this bill, so we can strengthen the vitality of our communities and keep delivering the world-class agricultural products Oregon is known for.”

Merkley is the only Oregon member of Congress from either chamber since Senator Mark Hatfield to serve on the Appropriations Committee, considered to be one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. He joined the committee in 2013 so that Oregon would have a strong voice in decisions about the investments our nation should be making.

Key elements to benefit Oregonians that Merkley fought to include in Tuesday’s bill are:

Wine Grape Smoke Exposure Research: This year’s unprecedented wildfire season blanketed much of the state of Oregon with dense, hazardous smoke, which has significantly impacted Oregon’s wine grape harvest. To better understand the challenges facing Oregon’s wine growers, the bill includes $3.5 million for research into smoke-impacted grapes at Oregon State University (OSU) and other West Coast universities, building on $2 million secured the prior appropriations cycle.

Rural Housing: The bill includes $1.41 billion for rental assistance and $34 million for Rural Housing Service Vouchers, which will help address the urgent housing crisis facing Oregon’s rural communities.

Rural Development: The bill protects funding for a number of USDA’s Rural Development programs, including rural housing and business development programs which President Trump proposed eliminating. These programs make billions of dollars of investments in rural America every year.

National Scenic Area: The bill includes $2 million to help Oregon’s rural communities promote economic development through the Oregon and Washington Investment Boards, rounding out a $10 million commitment that was authorized when the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was created. 

Soil Health: The bill includes $1.5 million for the establishment of a Soil Carbon Research Center at OSU focused on research into current and future dryland production practices to increase profitability and yield, conserve soil, enhance soil water storage, and promote sequestration of carbon for soil health.

Water Conservation and Habitat Restoration: The bill includes $30 million for the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations in Oregon. Funding is included for irrigation districts that need to improve water efficiency and conservation or otherwise improve fish and wildlife habitat. This program is providing critical funding for the collaborative processes underway across the state working to conserve water and keep Oregon’s family farms in business while improving the habitats of endangered species. Construction has begun on several key projects to address water resource interests in Central Oregon, including in the Tumalo Irrigation District and Central Oregon Irrigation District, and funding announced Tuesday will allow further expansion.

Pacific Shellfish: The bill includes $3.5 million of federal funding for cutting-edge research to improve the productivity, sustainability, and health of the Pacific shellfish agricultural system. This research is critical to efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate chaos on the health and economies of Oregon’s coastal communities.

Western Rangeland Livestock: The bill includes $3 million for the establishment of a Western Rangeland Precision Livestock center to develop precision-based nutrition strategies for rangeland-based livestock, as well as technology-based rangeland and livestock management strategies to optimize the health and productivity of Western rangeland-based livestock and the rangeland ecosystem. This funding will be split among land grant universities in Oregon, Montana, and Wisconsin.

Agricultural Research: The Agricultural Research Service received an increase of $84 million in funding for cutting-edge research to improve the productivity, sustainability, and health of the nation’s agricultural systems. In addition, Merkley was able to secure funding for key Oregon agriculture research programs, including funding for research on the Sudden Oak Death pathogen plaguing the south coast. Other research funding victories include research for alfalfa, barley, tree fruits, pear, wheat, hops, hemp, apple, shellfish, small fruits, seaweed, floriculture, nurseries, and rangeland ecology.

Summer EBT:  The bill continues funding the Summer EBT program at $35 million.  This program has provided much-needed nutrition for Oregon families during the summer months when schools are not in session.

Food Corps: The bill provides an increase of $1 million for Food and Agriculture Service Learning.  This program helps improve education resources for healthy eating especially among children.

Hemp: The bill provides $16.777 million to implement provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill allowing for the cultivation of commercial hemp, which can be used to make everything from cloth and rope to oil and soap. Hemp has already quickly become one of Oregon’s leading cash crops, and many feel has the potential to bring in more than $1 billion in sales to Oregon in the coming years with a fair and reasonable regulatory framework.

In addition, the bill directs the USDA to propose amendments to the agency’s Interim Final Rule on hemp to ensure that any final rule is based on science and will ensure a fair and reasonable regulatory framework for commercial hemp producers. The bill also:

  • Extends the 2014 hemp pilot program until 2022, providing hundreds of Oregon farmers clear operating guidelines as the USDA smooths out regulatory challenges;
  • Encourages the USDA to study the usage and impact of energy and water in hemp cultivation and to make recommendations on best practices and standards;
  • Directs the agency to establish and maintain a hemp germplasm repository for hemp breeding purposes;
  • Provides $2 million for the agency to conduct regionally-driven research, development, and stakeholder engagement to improve understanding of how to effectively integrate hemp into existing agricultural cropping, processing, and marketing systems; and
  • Directs the USDA to work with institutions under its jurisdiction to provide access to guaranteed loans for hemp producers and businesses.

The next step for the bill is merging with a counterpart bill from the U.S. House of Representatives in order to be passed by both houses and signed into law.

“The importance of investing in scientific research to help address some of the most pressing issues of our agriculture and food systems has never been greater,” said Dr. Alan Sams, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University. “With Senator Jeff Merkley’s leadership, the Senate Committee on Appropriation’s FY2021 agriculture spending bill would strengthen OSU partnerships with USDA ARS across the state to find solutions to challenges facing Oregon’s agricultural sectors, including new research investment in precision rangeland livestock production, dryland wheat soil systems, Pacific shellfish breeding, hemp production, and wine grapes impacted by wildfire smoke. These investments would help enhance agriculture’s resiliency to changing climate conditions and I look forward to working with Senator Merkley, and the rest of the Oregon delegation, to secure these research investments in a final FY2021 spending package.”

“A new Soil Carbon Research Center will provide Oregon wheat growers with valuable research to recognize and expand agricultural practices scientifically proven as a benefit to the economics of wheat farming and the environment,” said Amanda Hoey, CEO, Oregon Wheat Growers League. “It will assure data specific to the regional differences in Oregon and will ultimately lead to increased profitability and crop yield—good for our agricultural economy, our environmental stewardship, and our rural economies. We thank Senator Merkley for working to include this important funding for Oregon agriculture.”

“The continued dedication of Senator Merkley to find a way to bring needed access to capital for the Scenic Area is appreciated by all of us working towards a thriving Gorge economy,” said Jessica Metta, Executive Director, Mid-Columbia Economic Development District.

“I really believe, based on science done so far, dry land farmers in the Pacific Northwest can be part of a solution for all of us,” said Greg Goad, Pendleton wheat grower and familiar with the local agricultural research station. “Preliminary work suggests systems may exist which can enhance carbon sequestering while simultaneously increasing soil health for the resilience of future generations of farm families, in the face of hotter, dryer growing conditions of the climate extremes. We want to be a bigger part of the solution; we just need the science to show us how. This $1.5 million in funds for a new Carbon Center will bring us closer to success, for all society’s benefit.”

“The Global Hemp Innovation Center welcomes Senator Merkley’s continued championing of American hemp,” said Dr. Jay Noller, Director of the Global Hemp Innovation Center at Oregon State University. “We are at a critical time for the newly emerging American hemp industry that depends on research for science-based decision-making to accelerate progress towards stable production and dependable markets. This funding will help ensure coordinated research is conducted between USDA agencies and leading land grant institutions such as Oregon State University to find the most sustainable ways to incorporate hemp into American agriculture.”

“Water management solutions that benefit both agriculture and the environment come from the rural communities that rely on efficient irrigation infrastructure,” said Julie Davies O’Shea, Executive Director, Farmers Conservation Alliance. “With the support in this bill, we can bring together local partnerships to address the demands that persistent droughts, declining fish populations, and an expanding population put on aging irrigation systems. Here, we don’t see these challenges as a partisan issue, it’s a matter of community. Working together, with this funding, we can create a more resilient agriculture system for generations to come.”

“We applaud Senator Merkley for his outstanding leadership and support for domestic hemp production programs,” said Courney Moran, President, Oregon Industrial Hemp Farmers Association. “We appreciate him listening to the needs of farmers and agribusiness owners and taking action to protect their interests. Securing an extension of the 2014 Farm Bill authority until January 2021 will help farmers and state departments of agriculture transition smoothly to the 2018 Farm Bill and USDA program rules, saving farmers from an abrupt change in regulation mid-production season. We look forward to using this additional time to continue our collaboration with Congress and USDA for adoption of practical federal program rules that work for farmers in their fields nationwide and provide a framework that sets the commercial hemp industry up for success. Additionally, allocating much-needed funding to USDA for implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill and targeted research and development efforts to integrate hemp into traditional agricultural systems will further establish hemp as a true agricultural commodity. The future of the hemp industry is bright with this support from the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture!”

“As the threat of wildfires increase, understanding how smoke compounds affect wine grape quality has become critically important to our wineries and growers,” said Alex Sokol Blosser, President, Oregon Winegrowers Association. “Our industry drives significant economic activity and jobs in rural areas and we commend Senator Merkley for securing funding to study this issue impacting our viability.”