Max Denning

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) visited Blue Mountain Seeds’ new seed cleaning facility on Wednesday. He met with members of the local agricultural community, including the owners and employees of the Imbler-based company. The next day, leaders from both parties in the House and the Senate had a conference call to begin discussions about the 2018 Farm Bill — also known as the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 — the legislation that reforms and continues the programs of the Department of Agriculture.

Walden spoke with agricultural leaders, such as Bill Merrigan, general manager of Blue Mountain Seeds, about the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, and what Walden hopes will be included in its final version.

The Farm Bill, which reauthorizes all programs of the Department of Agriculture, acts as a safety net for farmers. A version of the bill is passed approximately every five years, with the last one signed into law February 2014.

One of the more important pieces included in the House version of the bill are the forestry provisions, according to Walden.

“It would require the Forest Service to burn dead trees after a fire, where appropriate, and then replant at least 75 percent of the burned areas,” Walden said Wednesday in an interview with The Observer.

In a letter addressed to the members of congress who will conference on the Farm Bill from both the House and Senate, Walden’s message was forceful.

“The West is burning. Lives have been tragically lost,” Walden said in the July 31 letter.

“Homes and other property have been destroyed. Smoke is choking our skies, leaving residents of Southern Oregon and elsewhere with the worst air quality in the nation. It does not have to be this way. As you finalize the Farm Bill in 2018, I urge you to include the important forest management tools included in the House bill to make needed steps toward preventing these fires into the future.”

The congressman said the forestry service doesn’t currently have funding to burn dead trees or plant new ones, but the House’s version of the Farm Bill provides funding for the process.

“You get a new healthy forest for the new generation,” Walden said.

One of the most contentious differences between the House and Senate versions is the House bill’s widening of the demographic required to work in order to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Currently, people who are ages 18-49, not disabled and without children must work 20 hours a week to qualify for SNAP benefits. The House bill extends the age limit to 59 and requires parents of children older than 6 to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in job training.

Walden said it’s important to get more people into the workforce.

“In a time where there are more job openings than there are people to work, we need to help people to get out of poverty and incentivize them to do so,” he said.

All in all, Walden is confident the Farm Bill will get passed before the Sept. 30 deadline.

“I think there’s a lot of desire to get it done. I want to get it done,” Walden said. “It’s a really important safety net for agriculture.”

Merrigan said Walden’s visit was the first time a U.S. congressman had visited Blue Mountain Seeds. Walden noted that he had never seen how grass seed is processed and was impressed by the sophisticated system.