Sunday, February 5, 2023
Feb. 5, 2023

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Western lawmakers ask USDA for more aid to farmers, ranchers stricken by heat, drought and fires


WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans who represent Western states in Congress called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday to provide more aid to farmers and ranchers battling historic heat, drought and wildfires across the region.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, lawmakers from nine states asked the USDA chief to “explore all potential flexibilities for additional relief,” noting that some Northwest berry growers have reported losing up to 80% of their crops to the heat wave that saw temperatures in the region reach as high as 120 degrees in June.

The bipartisan group of 44 House and Senate members was led by Rep. Suzan DelBene, a northwest Washington Democrat, GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse of central Washington, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Every lawmaker from Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and North Dakota signed on, along with members of the delegations from California, Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota.

“Although the extent of damages relating to the extreme heat has yet to be fully determined, agricultural producers expect these impacts to be severe,” the lawmakers wrote. “As producers continue to assess losses over the next 18 months, it is likely that the total impact of the heat wave will be much higher than current estimates.”

The plea from lawmakers comes after Vilsack declared dozens of Northwest counties as “primary natural disaster areas” in recent weeks due to prolonged drought, a designation that gives agricultural producers access to emergency USDA loans.

After thanking Vilsack for those designations, the legislators noted that “many of the producers who suffered the greatest heat-related losses were either located in counties not covered by the drought designations, experienced losses not covered by drought assistance programs, or both.”

More than 85% of the American West is under severe to exceptional drought conditions, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership between the University of Nebraska and several federal agencies.

The extreme heat’s impact on Western agriculture has been widespread, the lawmakers wrote, citing examples of ranchers forced to cull their herds due to feed shortages, along with damage to crops including potatoes, hops, wine grapes and more.

They also pointed to estimates that some Washington shellfish farmers lost as much as 90% of their clams, oysters and geoducks amid heat that killed as many as a billion sea creatures in the Salish Sea, according to one biologist’s modeling.

In addition to Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who also served as Agriculture Secretary during the Obama administration, the letter was sent to the top members of each party on the House and Senate agriculture committees and appropriations subcommittees that fund agriculture programs. Several of the lawmakers who signed the letter are also senior appropriators and the letter suggests they will seek to approve more federal spending to aid Western agriculture.