Uprooted Harvest: Forces combined in legislative battles

Northwest pear growers harvested a near record crop this fall, packing out about 16 million boxes.

But there is little jubilation among Hood River orchardists over that good news.

Two key conditions remain unchanged that have nullified profits during the past three years despite almost equally high yields.

Craig Mallon, board member of the Hood River Grower/Shipper Association, said the strong valuation of the U.S. dollar has made it difficult to sell fruit in foreign markets. He said that problem is compounded internally by the flood of imported pears that arrive during the peak spring sale period for domestic pears.

He said the Anjou pear, the "bread and butter" of Hood River's agriculture industry, has been hit hardest by these conditions. The variety stores well, so it is the pear most easily shipped and stocked on grocery shelves toward the end of the season -- against heavy foreign competition.

With imported pears now selling up to five million boxes a year, Mallon said domestic growers have been dealt a major financial blow since these sales are the equivalent of adding a fifth district to the four major pear production areas in the Northwest: Wenatchee, Medford, Mid-Columbia, and Yakima.

"If we could increase our per capita consumption of pears even a little bit then all this would disappear," said Mallon.

That sentiment has been echoed on both the legislative and marketing fronts as the "Buy American" campaign marches forward.

The majority of Hood River growers cheered the Oct. 4 approval for country of origin labeling under House Bill 1605, the proposed Consumer Right to Know Amendment to the U.S. Farm Bill.

However, many area orchardists are worried that U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith won't support one of the three pending senate versions because of concerns over who will pay the cost, whether it will create an escalating level of bureaucracy, and what types of enforcement actions will be taken.

"It's not the answer to all of our financial problems but it's a start and the Hood River growers want and need their senator's support," said Camille Hukari, leader of the Tractor Coalition which launched an active lobbying effort for country of origin labeling earlier this year.

In spite of his hesitation over the labeling issue, Smith was successful at bringing $4 million of emergency relief this year to Oregon's distressed "small crop" farmers. He has also introduced legislation whereby farmers can contract with the government and get paid up to $50,000 annually for using "good stewardship" practices in land management. He is optimistic that the Conservation Security Act, Senate Bill 932, will become part of the nation's Farm Bill and help farmers recoup the high cost of meeting stringent environmental standards that have made American products the safest in the world, but also more expensive to grow.

"Instead of helping our farmer through the back door and giving relief after the costs have already been imposed and the crops are in, I'm saying let's go in through the front door and find a more dignified way to do that," said Smith.

Oregon Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, has also launched a public awareness campaign to educate consumers about the high safety factor of American food products -- an issue she said has gained even more importance since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast.

"Never is there a more important time to be vigilant about our food and water sources," said Smith. "We all want to be safe, and one way we can do that is to 'buy U.S.A.' meat and produce."

She said although shoppers assume all imported food is inspected and subject to the same regulatory processes as the American farmer, she has recently learned that only two percent of imported fruit and produce is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We can no longer rely on the assumption that our food will be safe, we must take very precaution to protect and inform ourselves as consumers," said Smith.

She has undertaken a letter-writing campaign to convince major retailers and media outlets to take up the "Buy U.S.A." torch and help educate consumers about the importance of supporting American food producers.

"We can all work together to change agriculture politics so that our family farmers may survive and we as consumers will have the safest, locally-grown produce available," said Smith "Buy U.S.A., it should be an obsession."

To market pears from the homefront, Hood River's Grower/Shipper Association, which has 350 members, obtained a $50,000 grant last fall from the Mt. Hood Economic Alliance to develop winter pear products for use by the food service industries.

Mike McCarthy, chair of the organization's marketing committee, said preliminary studies have found that restaurants and pie manufacturers are strongly interested in buying bags of frozen, sliced pears for cooking convenience.

"Our goal is to take a million boxes of pears off the fresh market," said McCarthy. "We have a good product and we're in the right place at the right time as far as the consumer trying to eat a healthy product -- now we have to figure out what they want and how they want it and then do it their way."

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