County assembles work group to help farmers

The Hood River County Commission is assembling an agriculture work group to help unite local efforts on behalf of economically-distressed farmers.

That idea has already drawn strong support from Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, who has pledged to provide any assistance that is available from her office.

"I think we have some pretty significant issues facing us right now and we need to bring together some experts to pool their resources and come up with good questions for us to answer," said John Arens, chair of the county board.

He said those questions will stem from a wide range of issues, including what role the county can play in tree fruit marketing, and how local officials can aid federal legislative efforts to equalize foreign trade and compensate farmers for good environmental stewardship of their land.

"We need to look at all of the things that would help the industry as a whole and then, from that, ask what the county can do," said Arens.

Since the financially troubled orchardists provide one-third of the county's employment base, the commission believes that the cumulative local voice needs to be strong enough to ensure that it is heard at both the state and federal levels of government.

"We just need to get people to the table and come up with ideas," said Commissioner Chuck Thomsen, who is also local pear farmer.

In 2001, Hood River orchardists sustained more than a $28 million loss, the lowest point in 13 years. Conversely, during that same year, their expenses hit an all-time high at $3.4 billion because of increasing costs for energy, fertilizer, seeds, fuel, labor and regulatory compliance.

"We need to make sure that we are all on the same page with our efforts to turn this thing around," said Arens.

The county board received a preliminary list of candidates for the work group from Camille Hukari, government liaison for the Hood River Grower Shipper Association. These individuals were selected from a broad range of backgrounds and include: Kaye White, Hood River Valley Fruit Loop coordinator; Dollie Rasmussen, small crop farmer/fruit stand owner; Frank Wimmers, board chair for Diamond Fruit Growers, Inc.; Gary Willis, value-added developer; Steve Bickford, small packer/board for Mid-Columbia Growers Marketing Cooperative; Sam Asai, Oregon Farm Service Agency board; Mike McCarthy, Grower Shipper Marketing Committee chair; Terry Benton, grower; Craig Mallon, Grower Shipper board of directors; Allen Moore, former commercial grower/packer; Ron Stewart, organic grower/packer;and Clark Seavert, superintendent of Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

Arens said the advisory body is also open to other interested individuals who step forward with a request to serve. Within the next month, Arens said a meeting will be scheduled between the group and the county board to lay ground rules and set out the scope of work.

"I applaud Hood River County for putting this work group together and we're all in this together so anything I can do to help them I will," said Smith. "There's never been a more important time in our agricultural economy for us to face these issues and deal with them."

Meanwhile, Smith is forging ahead with her new "Buy Oregon" economic stimulus plan. For the past two months she has been promoting the idea that public institutions, such as schools and correctional facilities, should voluntarily buy products grown in their native state or, secondly, grown in America.

"Sept. 11 really opened the eyes of many consumers that we need to be aware of what we're eating more than ever and buy U.S.A. because we know our food is safe," said Smith, who believes that consumer demand is the key to a healthy fruit and produce market.

The Corbett rancher also has firsthand knowledge of the situation facing the nation's food producers and plans to use that expertise in her new role as vice-chair of the Joint Natural Resource Committee and as a member of the House Jobs and Economy Committee.

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