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Farmers, workers looking for relief from cherry losses

Local farmers may be getting relief for losses incurred by a bad Bing cherry harvest if the federal government decides the damage is great enough to declare the region a disaster area.

Kevin McIntyre, executive director for the Wasco/Hood River County Farm Service Agency Office, said a “deferred request for a declaration of disaster” has been submitted to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. The request was made in light of the high percentage of cherry splits that occurred about three weeks ago when several days of rain were followed by several days of blistering heat, which damaged a Bing cherry crop that was just coming to fruition.

If approved, the request can trigger federal and state disaster relief programs for eligible owners and operators of effected farms in Wasco County and all contiguous counties, including Hood River. Assistance is often given in the form of direct subsidies as well as emergency low-interest rate loans.

McIntyre said he brought the request before Wasco County’s Food and Agricultural Council, which is comprised of members of various regional agencies affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after “hearing a lot of individual growers have been affected by this (rain).”

The formal request will likely be deferred until end of the cherry harvest in August as farmers tabulate their Bing losses, some of which were initially estimated to be as high as 70 percent. The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to declare county disaster areas and is responsible for the approval or denial of the request.

McIntyre noted that a greater hurdle is the passage of the Farm Bill, which has caused considerable squabbling in Congress over the legislation’s provisions in the past few weeks. While McIntyre noted that the emergency operating loans will be available regardless of what happens with the Farm Bill, other federal disaster relief, such as the Emergency Conservation Program and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program, will not.

“They’re funded on an as-needed basis,” he explained, “and they’re not being funded right now.”

McIntyre said the disaster relief is available to owners and operators of eligible farms, but admitted that for families who work the fields, there are decidedly fewer options offered by the USDA for economic relief.

Elizur Bello, program director for Nuestra Comunidad Sana said the cherry workers, many of whom are Hispanic, are hurting.

“The demand’s not as great this year, which means people’s jobs,” he said.

Like the farmers who employ them, Bello explained that field workers also rely on a promising cherry harvest to help float them financially through the off-season when less work is available. This year, Bello said some migrant families have already left the area, to look for work elsewhere, disenchanted by the Bing crop.

Families who have decided to stay are “coping,” according to Bello, who said many orchard workers showed up at a recent food drive The Next Door helped put on in The Dalles, grateful for the assistance.

“They’re as optimistic as they can be, because they know there’s nobody to blame for it,” Bello said of the families’ take on the blighted cherries. “It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just circumstance.”

Some families are working less, but Bello noted that orchard owners in the Hood River Valley are making a conscious effort to keep local families employed.

“It seems to be important for orchardists in the community to employ local families, because a lot of these families live in the area year-round,” he said. “I think the orchardists in this area are very conscious of that.”

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