Farm bill delay hurts local farmers, says USDA official

There's no doubt what Joe Hess has at the top of his wish list for Christmas — passage of a federal farm bill.

Whether Congress can cooperate long enough to simply fund another five years' worth of agricultural activity isn't clear.

What is clear, says Hess, the USDA Farm Service executive director for Jackson and Josephine counties, is that many of the programs he administers for local farmers will dry up if there is no action.

Farm bills are five-year packages and the latest one expired Sept. 30, 2012. Congress kicked the can down the road with a one-year renewal for some programs, including one for livestock, but didn't fund it.

"Apart from those programs, I don't have a lot to offer," said Hess, who deals with crop insurance, disaster insurance and conservation programs.

Hess grew up in the Rogue Valley, has worked for the USDA for nine years and has been in his present role since 2008.

This fall, the Farm Service Agency office moved from its longtime location on Parsons Drive to more visible quarters on North Pacific Highway in the former Grange Co-op administrative offices. Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District acquired the building and also leases space to the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Rural Development agency.

Jackson County is not one of the state's major farm producers, even with a few thousand acres of pear trees. But it has a growing number of hobby farmers and small operators who sell their crops at growers markets.

"We have people coming in who have taken out orchards and they're looking for something else, whether it's leasing out the land for hay or small crop production such as pumpkins or sweet corn," Hess said.

Often Hess will field a call from someone who has recently acquired a few acres and has no farming experience.

"A lot of people have bought an old farm," Hess said. "They have land and don't know what to do with it, unless they see a program in our newsletter or are doing a conservation project."

There has been a growing use of NRCS programs for constructing high tunnels — plastic structures similar to greenhouses that extend growing seasons for row crops, or hoop houses providing similar protection.

Hess said when the farm bill does come up for consideration, he hopes there will be some changes to help smaller growers.

He noted that while a $250 annual premium for non-insured crop disaster assistance doesn't sound like much, it can add up when multiplied times a couple dozen crops.

And small-acreage farmers with several crops end up paying far more than growers with massive properties.

"It's one thing for a Midwest monoculture crop farmer," he said. "But it's considerably more for a small farmer with eight to 10 crops."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at Edge.

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