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News - Hitting Bottom

Hitting Bottom

By Sally Ousley - The Daily News - Longview, WA

WOODLAND -- George Tsugawa has farmed the same piece of ground for 45 years, the last 30 years in raspberries. But the raspberry vines are gone and the land is black and bare.

A "for sale" sign signals that Tsugawa's fertile Woodland Bottoms land soon may be buried under subdivisions or commercial parks.

Like their counterparts across the nation, the farmers of the Woodland Bottoms are struggling to survive. Low market prices, competition from foreign producers and rising energy costs are jeopardizing a Cowlitz County industry with roots in the last century.

Farmers see the slow disappearance of agriculture here as a loss of a way of life; consumers, they say, will feel their loss in the disappearance of locally grown food and, eventually, food that is more expensive and less safe to eat.

"I'm telling my grandkids to go to college, pack a lunch, work for 30 years, make lots of money and retire. I'm telling them to get away from farming," said George Thoeny, who has raised carrots and raspberries in the Woodland Bottoms for 45 years.

The number of full-time farmers in Cowlitz County dropped from 149 in 1992 to 129 in 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that same period, the amount of farmland in the county decreased from 35,700 acres in 1992 to 31,100 acres in 1997, a 13 percent decline.

The decline could accelerate. The University of Missouri report to Congress last week projected that net farm income will decline 20 percent over the next two years because of rising energy and fertilizer costs.

"Agriculture is going through a recession, but this is the worst we've seen for 30 years," said Steve Appel, president of the Olympia-based Washington State Farm Bureau. "The recession, combined with the costs of power, the costs of fertilizer and federal regulations are creating hard times for farmers. Ultimately, some folks will give up farming."

That's the last thing most local farmers want.

"When you're out driving tractor and seeing that soil turn black after you've gone over it, it's a feeling of accomplishment. The work is never done .... (But) we've haven't seen anything else we'd rather do," said Woodland Bottoms dairyman Jim Donald.

The average farmer in Cowlitz County was 56 years old in 1995, and many of them could convert their land to fat bank accounts. Realtors say farm land in the bottoms can fetch $35,000 to $50,000 per acre if it's sold to industrial developers who want to take advantage of the convenience of access to Interstate 5 and the railroad.

The 7,000 acres of farmland in the Woodland Bottoms has yielded bumper crops of berries, sweet corn, carrots, grass seed and dairy products for generations. But the prices the crops fetch just don't justify the effort any more, farmers say.

Consumer prices at the grocery store have been rising. But most of the increases are after products leave the farms, according to the Washington Agricultural Statistics Service:

  • A gallon of 2 percent milk can cost as much as $3.19 at grocery stores. Dairy farmers get 70 cents to $1.

  • Raspberries cost consumers about $2.98 per 6-ounce container. Last year producers got about 30 cents per pound, minus shipping costs.

  • Farmers got 66 cents a pound for blueberries, which cost an average of $2.98 per 6-ounces in the store.

  • Strawberries sell for $2.50 per pound. Farmers got 44 cents per pound last year.

  • Carrots cost 60 cents per pound at the store, while farmers got a little more than 16 cents a pound in 2000.

    Farmers' costs, meanwhile, keep rising.

    "In December 1999, minimum wage was $5.75," bottoms farmer Jerry Peterson said. "Now, it's $6.72 an hour. That's a 17 percent increase, while our commodity prices went down.

    "In Chile, workers get $5 a day. And they can ship raspberries for 5 cents a pound. It costs us more to ship to the East Coast than it costs them to ship here. We just can't compete with foreign countries."

    Chilean raspberries have flooded the United States market, offering consumers lower prices than American-grown berries. Berry farmers on the bottoms say foreign produce is not inspected properly and does not meet government regulations.

    Thoeny, the Woodland carrot and raspberry grower, said government studies show only 1.6 percent of all produce shipped to the United States is inspected for pesticides and disease as it enters the country.

    In a 1998 Congressional report, Food and Drug Administration officials said the agency only had 309 food safety inspectors for the nation's 330 ports. To cope, the FDA uses computers to screen shipments. But it conducted only 50 percent of the import inspections and 66 percent of the lab tests it planned in 1997. With imports increasing each year, the number of inspections is unlikely to increase, the agency acknowledged.

    "It's like if you plan a trip to Mexico, you immediately think, don't drink the water, don't eat the produce," he said. "Well, that produce is in the stores right here."

    "The worst part is they can use all kinds of chemicals," Peterson said. "They have no regulations and once the berries are in this country, testing is not enforced."

    Jim Donald, one of only three dairy farmers left in the bottoms, said consumers need to be educated --- for their own sake as well as American farmers'.

    "People are getting more out of touch with where their food comes from ... and the politicians think it's their job to supply cheap food."

    Peterson agrees.

    "We need to educate consumers," he said. "They need to pay attention where the product comes from."

    Appel said farming must change along with consumer tastes.

    "The world has changed. The key is how we live within that world," he said.

    "The thing is that, tomorrow there will be 250,000 more people in the world and they all have one thing in common: They have to eat," Appel said. "Those of us who raise the food should benefit the way the people who eat the food benefit from it."

    To reach Sally Ousley, call (360) 575-6210 or e-mail sallyo@tdn.com.


    History

    Flooding was not considered an unusual phenomenon in Woodland. People who lived there just took it for granted that every spring, flood water would come.

    Early settlers moved their cattle to high ground and built their homes according to the high water marks.

    In 1920, the first dike was built, but it broke. In 1921, the dikes held and to celebrate, the first Planter's Days was held. Planter's Days is the longest continuous celebration in the state, held every year except in 1948, when another flood swept through Woodland.

    Byron Ferguson remembers the 1933 flood. They had to move the herd to higher ground on Whalen Road. The 1948 flood was worse.

    When Chinook winds suddenly melted mountain snows, most of Woodland was under water by noon on May 31, 1948. Ferguson said water rose to the ceiling of his home.

    "At least my house didn't float off the foundation," he said.

    They moved the cows up on the hills and continued milking them there. Milk trucks hauled off the milk. After the flood, all the fences were down. Some posts had come out of the ground, ending up in trees or roofs of homes.

  • Between 1992 and 1997, farmland in Cowlitz County has decreased 13 percent --- from 35,678 acres to 31,103. In Clark County, farmland has shrunk by more than 10,000 acres in those five years, from 82,967 acres to 72,841 acres.

  • In Cowlitz County, 450 acres of red raspberries produced 2.7 million pounds in 1998. In 1999, 550 acres produced 3.9 million pounds.

  • In Western Washington, there were about 35,000 hired farm workers, or about 14 percent of the total farm workers in the state in 1997. There was a payroll of about $156 million.

  • Statewide, farmers and ranchers in 1997 employed 152,000 workers, including nearly 60,000 seasonal workers.

  • Washington leads the nation in production of 10 farm commodities: apples, carrots, Concord grapes, dry peas, hops, lentils, pears, red raspberries, spearmint oil, sweet corn.

  • Washington's farmers and ranchers produced $5.3 billion worth of food and fiber in 1999.

  • Agriculture is the state's largest industry.

  • Whitman County grows more wheat and barley than any other county in the United States.

  • Dairy cows in Washington produce more pounds of milk per cow than cows in any other state.

  • Washington-grown apples are sold in all 50 states and in more than 40 countries.

  • Washington's potato growers have the highest yield per acre of any state and twice the yield of Idaho.

    Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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