Oyster shuckers

The oyster and clam industry employs hundreds in Pacific County, but appears to be falling between the cracks when it comes to significant covid emergency financial aid.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Aug. 11 extended covid-19 relief to nurseries, sheep ranchers and producers of dozens of other farm goods, while turning down aid to dozens of other commodities.

Commodities left to fend for themselves include some of importance to Pacific County — cranberries, and farmed oysters and clams.

Off-season for berries

No formal request for aid was made by cranberry farmers. This may be because the crops had no chance of qualifying. The fresh crop wasn’t being sold or picked between mid-January and mid-April, so prices couldn’t drop and the harvest couldn’t be interrupted. Washington hop and wheat farmers were among others who were denied. USDA said there wasn’t evidence their prices slumped by 5% or more between mid-January and mid-April as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Nevertheless, covid-19 drove up production costs, particularly for housing for crops like sweet cherries, Northwest Horticultural Council President Mark Powers said.

Powers said he hopes for another round of relief that will take into account coronavirus-related production costs. “We’ll see what come out of Congress. Hopefully, there’ll be additional assistance for all our growers,” he said.

Oysters rejected

However, an impassioned plea was made on behalf of shellfish growers, whose industry generates an estimated $270 million a year in direct and indirect economic benefits in Washington state. In all, the state produces 30% of the nation’s oysters, with the largest share of those coming from Pacific County, where hundreds are employed in the industry.

Oyster farming came to a nearly complete halt starting with the state lock-down in early March. Sales to restaurants were especially impacted. Some growers were unable to afford spring “seed” — the tiny sand grain-sized oysters that form the foundation of harvests two or three years later. Meanwhile, mature oysters are in some cases growing too large for consumer preferences.

“Our family has put everything we have into building our farm, and we farm, just as any corn farmer or dairy farmer does. We go through the same pain and struggle to get our crops to market and survive disaster after disaster. We simply need to be recognized as the farmers that we are,” oyster grower Jaime Courtney wrote the USDA. Courtney’s Washington State Seafood LLC is located on Hood Canal, but reflects statewide industry issues.

The USDA rejected the request for funds, saying that shellfish growers are instead only eligible for aid under the emergency CARES Act passed at the start of the covid crisis. In so doing, the agency dismissed reasoning offered by Courtney and other growers.

“Small allocations that were given to NOAA under the CARES Act to be administered by the State of Washington totaling $50 million will not even begin to address the economic damage to the farmers in Washington state,” Courtney said. Covid funds managed by the Small Business Administration also are unavailable to shellfish growers, and the small share of CARES funding that theoretically might help oyster and clam farmers is expected to be tied up in tribal litigation.

Picking winners and losers

Hop Growers of Washington Executive Director Ann George said the her industry’s losses were in fewer acres planted under contract, a response to bars, restaurants, sporting events and other outlets for craft beer closing.

“I frankly feel the USDA picked winners and losers,” she said. “It should have been opened up to all producers and allowed individuals to justify their losses. It’s unfortunate that producers who didn’t fit their mold weren’t allowed to do that.”

The $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program was set up in April to compensate farmers and ranchers for price drops and supply-chain disruptions caused by covid-19. The USDA in May asked for comments on extending relief to a wider range of farm products. The agency received more than 1,740 comments.

To date, USDA has distributed some $7 billion to 521,853 applicants. Cattlemen, dairymen, hog farmers, and corn and soybean growers have received more than 90% of the pay out, according to the USDA’s running tally.

Idaho producers have received $146.5 million, while Washington farmers have received $70.4 million and Oregon’s $66.8 million. California producers have received $378.4 million.

Rejected and eligible

The list of rejected crops was long and included goat milk, feed barley, wine grapes, lavender, alfalfa and hemp. Makers of wine, cheese and raisins asked for relief, but as processed foods didn’t quality, according to the USDA.

Newly eligible crops include the following specialty crops:

Aloe leaves, bananas, bataks, bok choy, carambola (starfruit), cherimoya, chervil (french parsley), citron, curry leaves, daikon, dates, dill, donqua (winter melon), dragon fruit (red pitaya), endive, escarole, filberts, frisee; horseradish, kohlrap, kumquats, leeks, mamey sapote, maple sap, mesculin mix, microgreens, nectarines, parsley, persimmons, plantains, pomegranates, pummelos, pumpkins, rutabagas, shallots, tangelos, turnips/celeriac, turmeric, upland/wintercress, water cress, yautial/malanga and yucca/cassava.

The USDA has pushed back the date to apply for relief to Sept. 11. To start applying, the agency recommended calling the Farm Service Agency at 877-508-8364.

— With additions by the Chinook Observer

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