Close Menu Congressman Kurt Schrader

Kurt's Work

Schrader in the News

USDA undersecretary says help on the way for Oregon farmers reeling from disasters

Capital Press

WOODBURN, Ore. — Help is coming for Oregon farmers and ranchers who suffered through multiple natural disasters in 2021.

Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary for farm production and conservation, paid a visit to the state with U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., on Dec. 13 for a pair of roundtable meetings — one in Woodburn and one in Salem — to discuss new funding approved for disaster relief, as well as drought and wildfire mitigation.

The meetings coincided with a special legislative session where Oregon lawmakers passed a $100 million drought relief package that includes $40 million in forgivable loans to keep farmers afloat while they wait for federal aid.

Bonnie said the USDA will begin rolling out disaster assistance in 2022. Congress approved $10 billion in September for the agency to expand its Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Plus Program, or WHIP+, which for the first time will cover crop losses due to extreme heat.

“Our hope is to move this winter on investments,” Bonnie told the roundtable in Woodburn. “We want to move quickly, and the agency has been moving quickly. ... There’s work you have to do to train your employees on how these dollars are going to go out. That’s already been happening.”

The morning started with a tour of Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas, a large operation with more than 200 employees and 225 acres in production.

Kyle Fessler, who oversees greenhouse production for the family farm, said Mother Nature posed serious challenges this year. It started with a major ice storm that hit the Willamette Valley in February, causing their outdoor-grown nursery stock to fold over like candy canes.

Then came a historic heat wave in late June, with temperatures reaching well above 100 degrees for several days straight and scorching ornamental plants.

“A lot of it was reworking the plants to get them to salability,” Fessler said.

Specialty crops

State and farm leaders met with Bonnie and Schrader following the tour, urging the federal government to provide greater assistance in the face of mounting disasters.

The summer “heat dome” caused an estimated $50 million worth of damage to the Oregon nursery industry, and wiped out 50% of the state’s blackberries and raspberries. Heavy ice that blanketed the Willamette Valley also wreaked havoc on older hazelnut orchards, snapping branches and in some cases splitting whole trees to the trunk.

Yet these kinds of specialty crops are often left out of relief programs in the Farm Bill, which is written more for commodity crops like corn and soybeans.

Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, told Bonnie she received calls from dozens of farmers who don’t qualify for USDA programs. Each time, there seems to be a different and unique reason.

“It starts to feel a little bit challenging,” Cooper said. “Is there something that will overall make the programs more workable for specialty crops?”

Bonnie said those longer discussions will take place as Congress writes a new farm bill. In the meantime, he said the USDA is working to make its programs as flexible as possible for all producers.

“We’re happy to look at flexibilities we can do now,” he said. “If there are particularly challenging issues, we’re more than happy to engage on that as well.”

The Oregon Department of Agriculture will administer the state’s $40 million disaster loan program, covering crop damage that occurred in 2021. Loans will be forgiven if producers do not qualify for federal assistance.

Schrader, who represents part of the agriculture-rich Willamette Valley, said he is determined to close these gaps in coverage in the next farm bill.

“We’re going to have to write these disaster mitigation titles to actually reflect the fact that, maybe you didn’t lose the whole tree, but you lost a ton of branches and your hazelnut production is down 30%. Maybe you didn’t lose all your blueberries — the vines are still alive — but the crop has been destroyed by 80% because of the excessive heat that’s out there,” Schrader said. “A lot of these things aren’t recognized in the disaster programs right now.”

Wildfire mitigationA second roundtable at Chemeketa Community College in Salem included virtual appearances by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

They highlighted funding for drought and wildfire mitigation that was recently passed in the federal bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The bill includes $2.2 billion to fix aging water infrastructure across the West, and $3.4 billion to help with forest thinning and research to manage large wildfires.

Vilsack said $70 million per year will be freed up to do on-the-ground forest thinning and post-wildfire cleanup, amounting to 1.2 billion trees being planted over the next decade.

”It’s also going to allow us to do a better job of our all-hands, all-lands wildfire risk assessment to figure out where exactly wildfire fuel management needs to take place,” he said.

Brown said the state has created its own roadmap for fire protection, codifying recommendations made by the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response in Senate Bill 762.

Among the recommendations, Oregon will create comprehensive statewide wildfire risk maps and target forest thinning projects to make the landscape more resilient. Brown said these types of projects have proven to be effective, as was seen on the 413,000-acre Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon earlier this year.

”I do think the Labor Day wildfires of 2020 were a wakeup call for us all,” Brown said. “We need continued maximum investment in these programs.”