Congress looks to expand disaster aid for farms

September 27, 2021
Congress looks to expand disaster aid for farms

A continuing resolution that would keep the federal government funded through December includes $10 billion in disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers still reeling from severe weather in 2020 and 2021.

For the first time, the USDA’s Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Plus Program — commonly abbreviated as WHIP+ — would be expanded to cover crop losses caused by extreme heat under the proposal that passed the U.S. House on Sept. 21.

That is significant for growers of specialty crops across the Pacific Northwest following a multi-day “heat dome” in June that pushed temperatures as high as 117 degrees, damaging berries, cherries, hops and nursery plants, among other commodities.

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said his industry sustained an estimated $50 million in damages from the heat.

“I don’t care what you grow, 117 degrees is not good for any of it,” Stone said. “Those types of events like the heat dome are not normal.”

Stone said the WHIP+ Reauthorization Act is a good first step to providing much-needed financial aid for producers, while acknowledging heat as a disaster for farms alongside events such as fires, hurricanes and ice storms.

“I think it’s a really good idea, acknowledging (heat) as something that needs to be considered,” Stone said.

Darcy Kochis, spokeswoman for the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission, said the heat also caused an estimated 50% crop loss in all caneberries statewide.

“Oregon caneberry growers were hit especially hard by the heat dome because of the timing,” Kochis said. “The blackberry crop was just about at the peak of ripeness the last week of June, and literally burnt on the cane in those three days.”

Kochis said the commission has been working to secure federal and state support for growers.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said he pushed for greater disaster assistance to be included in the continuing resolution after meeting this summer with farmers and ranchers across the state.

”This is a continuing problem,” said Blumenauer, whose district includes parts of Portland stretching south and east of the city. “We’ve got a new reality that we have to contend with. People are just not prepared for these new extremes.”

In the short term, Blumenauer said the funding should provide relief for growers impacted by this year’s heat.

He spoke to the Capital Press on Monday before boarding a flight back to Washington, D.C., and said he expects the continuing resolution will be passed before government funding is set to expire Sept. 30.

But in the long-term, Blumenauer said more needs to be done to mitigate the effects of climate change.

”We need to be able to move resources to deal with resiliency, recovery and changes to deal with this new climate reality,” he said. “I think this is the number one challenge that faces Oregon agriculture this decade.”

In addition to allocating $10 billion in the WHIP+ Reauthorization Act, the House Agriculture Committee also approved $275 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.

Financial aid will be provided under the programs for agricultural losses due to droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, excessive heat, winter storms, smoke exposure, quality losses in crops and excessive moisture in 2020 and 2021, according to the committee.

WHIP+ allows for drought assistance to be triggered when counties experience “severe drought” or worse conditions for eight consecutive weeks.

Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the group is encouraged to see heat loss covered through 2021 in WHIP+, and hopes to see Congress act soon on the package.

“This is a great first step of many to come to ensure that gaps in the federal programs that are impacting Oregon producers are resolved, and that our producers receive the assistance they desperately need to stay in business after the last year’s many natural disasters,” Cooper said.

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