Merkley visits organic hazelnut orchard

AURORA, Ore. — Walking along a muddy path between blocks of organic hazelnuts, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley listened while Jim Birkemeier talked about the process of replacing older trees with newer disease-resistant varieties.

Merkley visited Meridian Orchards in Aurora, Ore., on Oct. 4, where Birkemeier and his daughter, Mary Birkemeier-Stehman, began harvesting this year’s crop the previous week. The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service predicts Oregon farmers will harvest 49,000 tons of hazelnuts this year.

Meridian Orchards, a third-generation family business, went organic in 1997. That comes with its own set of unique challenges — such as managing weeds that have grown in thick during this year’s early season rains without the use of herbicides.

As the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Merkley recently helped secure several provisions for both hazelnuts and organic agriculture. The spending bill passed out of the full Appropriations Committee on Sept. 19, and now heads to the Senate floor.

“There is a good chance it will be the first to go to the floor,” Merkley said in an interview with the Capital Press. “The vast bulk of how much money we’re putting into what, I think, was very bipartisan.”

That includes allocating $17.5 million for a Value-Added Producer Grant under USDA Rural Development, emphasizing the organic hazelnut industry.

Birkmeier-Stehman runs day-to-day operations at Meridian Orchards with her husband, David Stehman. The farm has 80 acres of hazelnuts, mostly Barcelona trees that date back to the 1970s.

However, with the emergence of Eastern Filbert Blight, Meridian Orchards has replaced 30 acres of orchard with Yamhill and Jefferson trees that are more resistant to the cankerous fungal disease.

Replacing trees is not cheap, Birkmeier said. Compounding the stress is lingering uncertainty over trade with China amid the ongoing trade war. China has boosted tariffs on hazelnuts up to 65% since the trade war started.

Stehman said the industry is still working on developing new domestic markets for Oregon hazelnuts, though companies are still hesitant with the fluctuating supply.

“There’s really not enough product to develop any new markets at this point,” Stehman said, though he added there are some bigger producers starting to come on with young, blight-resistant trees.

Value-Added Producer Grants can help farmers to process and market new products. The goal, according to USDA Rural Development, is to generate new products, expand marketing opportunities and increase farm income.

Elsewhere in the agriculture appropriations bill, Merkley touted a $1 million funding increase for the National Organic Program and $6 million for Organic Transition Research.

“We have seen a massive increase in the number of organic farmers,” Merkley said. Organic sales now account for over 4% of total U.S. food sales, according to the USDA.

Other wins for Oregon in the appropriations bill, Merkley said, include $16.5 million to implement new regulations for industrial hemp legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill, and $2 million for research and policy evaluation for products containing cannabidiol, or CBD.

Merkley said hemp has the potential to become a billion-dollar crop in Oregon, which would make it the state’s most valuable agricultural commodity.

The most contentious issue in this year’s agriculture appropriations bill was the question of moving the USDA’s Economic Research Service from its home in Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Merkley said.

Some argue it is more valuable to have the agency closer to the heart of the agricultural industries it serves, while others fear it might handicap researchers by putting them farther away from delegations that come to meet with lawmakers and other agencies in the nation’s capital.

Merkley said he thinks, given the type of work the ERS does, it would be better situated in D.C. “But one could argue the other side,” he conceded.