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Programs needed for cleaner orchard heating

By PATTI SMITH and BOB MONTGOMERY

Special to the News

As candidates for the Oregon State Legislature, House District 52 and Senate District 26, we welcome the opportunity to respond to the letter to the editor (Peter VonOppel, May 11) regarding air quality in the Hood River Valley during the orchard heating season.

First, we would take issue with the author of that letter when he states air quality is ignored for the “expediency of a small group of inflexible fruit growers” — we wish the issue were that simple — it is not. We must recognize the value, in terms of hard dollars, the fruit industry provides to this community. According to an Oregon State University study conducted in September 2000, area fruit growers directly provide over 30 percent of Hood River County residents’ earned income. These are dollars and jobs to this community that represent a significant part of the county’s economic base.

We must also recognize that the fruit industry is suffering from historically high losses due to many factors not in their control — foreign competition, the high value of the U.S. dollar overseas which negatively affects export markets, increasing regulatory costs, increasing labor and input costs — all coupled with the inability of the growers to pass those increased costs on to the consumer. As a result of huge financial losses, it is not the inflexibility of growers, but the cost to convert to more environmentally-friendly means of orchard heating.

For example, one orchard fan costs in the range of $18,000. Each of these fans can protect 10-12 acres of land. They are a significant investment, one which is hard to make when a grower is wondering where the money is coming from to pay workers’ wages or the mortgage.

Additionally, to convert from diesel “smudge-pots” to cleaner heating systems requires another significant investment. We are told that the heaters themselves range in cost from $18-$45 each. The propane system must be placed underground, representing a cost of $500-$1,000 per acre to install. Further, there is the cost of tank rental and fuel at about 75 cents per gallon. A grower of 53 acres, the county-average orchard size, could face costs in excess of $100,000 to install fans and a propane heating system on that acreage. It is not hard to understand that this sizeable investment cannot be made if there is no income, or a negative one, and the line of credit to the bank or packing house is already at its limit.

What we need are better programs, both state and federal, to help area growers with the cost of converting to cleaner systems. For example, the Farm Service Agency, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides cost shares to agricultural producers to replace irrigation main lines that leak. They provide cost shares to enhance water quality and to improve fish habitat. Perhaps it is time that we ask our federal partners to include air quality in their cost share programs. Now that the Farm Bill is complete and has been signed by the president, there is more available money in the conservation titles. Hopefully that will result in incentives and financial assistance for air quality improvement programs.

It is certainly not an option to eliminate orchard heating, as a significant part of the valley could no longer grow quality fruit — or no longer grow fruit at all. Mother Nature will continue to give us unseasonably cold nights at bloom and post-bloom, threatening orchard crops and requiring orchard heating in one form or another.

At the state level, we provide tax credits for the purchase of orchard fans. The problem is that in order to access these credits, a grower must be earning money and owe tax. Unfortunately, tax credits, for many, provide no financial assistance or incentive, as they are losing money and cannot apply the credits to their tax returns before they expire.

What we don’t need is a “big stick” in the form of regulatory fines. We believe that, by working with growers and the appropriate state and federal agencies, the issue of air quality can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Any grower can tell you that they will welcome the day when the sun comes up after a nasty night of orchard heating, such as was experienced last week, and you can see nothing but blue sky. What that means to us is that growers are once again profitable and can afford to invest in their businesses, including converting to cleaner systems of orchard heating.

Meanwhile, we can all help them on the road to profitability. When you shop at your local grocery store, buy locally, buy seasonally and buy U.S.A.-grown fruit.

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Republican Patti Smith, Corbett, represents District 52 in the State House, and Republican Bob Montgomery, Cascade Locks, is running for State Senate District 26.

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