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Perez and USDA undersecretary discuss problems, solutions with Clark County farmers

Xochitl Torres-Small visited Van der Salm Farms in Woodland, participated in roundtable

By Carlos Fuentes, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 5, 2023, 11:44am

WOODLAND — Climate change. Transportation costs. Storage. Labor shortages. Lack of a central food hub. Tedious grant applications.

These were some of the main topics of discussion at a farm roundtable hosted Tuesday evening by Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, at Van der Salm Farms in Woodland.

Perez wasn’t the only big name at the event. U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres-Small was also present at the roundtable to hear from farmers in Southwest Washington.

“This is the chance where I get to learn,” Torres-Small said to the nine farmers and Clark County leaders at the discussion. “I’m just so deeply grateful to get to be here with all of you, to learn from you and to find ways to best support you.”

For 90 minutes, Perez and Torres-Small — who was recently nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the next deputy secretary of the USDA — talked with farmers about key issues facing Clark County agriculture.

Several farmers discussed the need for a central food hub, such as a large-scale farmers market, where they could sell their products in bulk.

“In Southwest Washington, there is no structure for those additional markets; there is no food hub. … Rural communities across the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest are struggling to figure out how to get through a day, and you’re listening to it from each of these farms, so that structure is missing,” said Ed Rosales, owner of the Western Institute for Agriculture and Food Security.

Erin Thoeny, a member of the Clark-Cowlitz Farm Bureau, said farmers in Southwest Washington are at a pinch point, citing a lack of direct market demand and processors increasing imports due to pressure from chain stores.

“We have had personal problems with the direct markets, (such as) the farmers market in Vancouver, where they are more engaged for being entertainment zones rather than being geared for farmers who can actually drive in their trucks and sell on their trucks,” Thoeny said.

Several farmers said they have used USDA resources to sustain their businesses, including Specialty Crop Block Grants, Value-Added Producer Grants, and crop and livestock insurance.

However, most agreed the applications take too much time and are often filled with technical jargon.

Ruud van der Salm, general manager of Our American Roots, said some of the grants are too specific to be helpful. He said one application, which took an office worker an entire day to look at, didn’t allow for the money to be spent on equipment, salaries of family members or new facilities.

He didn’t follow through with the application.

Torres-Small said she was impressed by the ability of Clark County farmers to pivot when facing market challenges. She pointed out that 50 percent of farmers in America are operating at a negative income.

She said her biggest takeaway from the roundtable was the farmers’ need for increased land access and market creation.

“I also saw an eagerness to work together, to aggregate their production in a way that would provide some scale,” Torres-Small said following the event. “Coming from the USDA, it’s exciting to look at ways that we can better support … their vision for how to best serve and feed their communities.”

Perez said she was excited to have Torres-Small in Southwest Washington. Earlier in the day, they hosted a similar roundtable at the Port of Kalama focused on broadband access.

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Prior to working at the USDA, Torres-Small was the first woman and first person of color to represent New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, from 2019 to 2021. While in Congress, she served on the Committee for Agriculture.

“We are very fortunate to have Undersecretary Torres-Small join us,” Perez said. “There are many people from rural districts, but I think we are very fortunate to have somebody that has such deep roots in agriculture … somebody that’s not afraid to show up in boots and get work done.”

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Columbian staff writer