Six people are clustered outside amongst rows of blackberry crops.

From left to right, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, an unidentified photographer with the federal government, and father and son farm owners Brian and Taylor Martin view the G&C Farms blackberry crop following a short summit on drought at a farm just outside Salem in Marion County.

Sam Stites / OPB

United State Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Oregon Tuesday to meet with Gov. Kate Brown and local stakeholders to discuss the impacts of drought on the state’s agriculture industry and how the Biden-Harris administration is responding to what is shaping up to be yet another historic wildfire season.

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The secretary’s trip began with a brief summit at G&C Farms just outside Silverton in Marion County where he met with farmers, including cane berry growers Brian and Taylor Martin, who are fourth and fifth generation owner-operators, respectively.

According to Vilsack, his fact-finding trip to the Willamette Valley will help inform decisions being made in Washington, D.C., regarding how to respond to the needs of farmers like the Martins whose crops were decimated by the extreme heat Oregon saw in late June that caused some to lose as much as 40% to 50% of their yield.

“We talked a little bit about some of the other programs that we have at the United States Department of Agriculture, the non-crop insurance program which is designed to provide assistance in situations like this that’s not quite doing what it needs to do,” Vilsack said. “We need to obviously look for ways to improve it.”

In a press conference at G&C Farms, Vilsack told reporters that USDA disaster relief programs are designed for more one-off type events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, whereas the issues Oregon farmers are seeing where persistent impacts to crops — extreme heat, drought, ice storms and wildfire — are being driven by a changing climate.

The visit comes on the heels of the announcement Monday that $15 million in federal assistance is being made available to farmers in the Klamath Basin through a USDA drought pilot program.

Vilsack noted that the USDA recently invested $41 million in four states, including Oregon, in an effort to identify creative ways for the agricultural industry to respond to climate change, $7.5 million of which was earmarked for Oregon growers impacted by drought.

Vilsack said one of the biggest takeaways from his visit is a renewed importance on getting President Joe Biden’s federal infrastructure package passed so that growers like the Martins can get their product into the market more quickly and efficiently.

That infrastructure package will also include a more than $3.3 billion investment in forest management and firefighting resources in response to hotter and drier summers that are wreaking havoc on forests across the western U.S.

“It’s an opportunity for us to really invest in new conservation programs, to invest in climate smart agriculture, and to invest in a significantly accelerated forest management effort to try to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires,” Vilsack said. “We need to do a better job managing our forests, and that requires resources. We’ve been attempting to do forest management on the cheap. … $3.3 billion is a good down payment, but by no means is it enough.”

Gov. Brown said that she was pleased to host Sec. Vilsack for a tour of the Martins’s berry farm so he could see first =hand the toll that climate-induced drought is taking on farms in Oregon. She’s hopeful that the visit will prompt further federal investment in states where growers are struggling to keep up with the reality of climate change.

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Two people stand amongst rows of blackberry crops, looking off to the right of the image.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks to fifth-generation blackberry farmer Taylor Martin on Aug. 3, 2021, about the destruction the June 2021 heat dome caused to his family's crops. They toured the site following a short summit with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Martin family's property just outside of Salem, Ore.

Sam Stites / OPB

“Our agriculture sector is incredibly important to Oregon’s economy, and, of course, to who we are as a people, to our culture,” Brown said.

Brian Martin said he has been growing blackberries at his family farm for more than 30 years. In talking with other local growers, he said no one has seen this kind of catastrophic weather that the Willamette Valley has experienced this growing season.

Martin said he’s thankful that the issue is receiving the attention that it deserves.

“I’ve never seen this kind of response,” he said. “I’m just very grateful that Sec. Vilsack and Gov. Brown were able to come out and take the time to do this for us in Oregon.”

Brown and Vilsack also toured the Oregon National Guard and Office of Emergency Management’s Anderson Readiness Center in Salem where emergency officials are monitoring the ongoing wildfire situation across the state.

Brown and Vilsack gave a second briefing on federal efforts to help states like Oregon in its effort to battle more than two dozen fires currently burning, threatening communities and producing hazardous smoke.

Vilsack commended Senate Bill 762, Oregon’s omnibus wildfire package passed by the Legislature in the final days of this year’s session that carved out an additional $200 million for firefighting and mitigation efforts. It also updated building codes to account for fire’s impact on the wildland-urban interface.

Vilsack said one important aspect of that bill is it outlines how the state will cooperate better with the federal government in taking a more proactive role in forest management with wildfire in mind.

Vilsack again invoked President Biden’s infrastructure package as a significant step in outlining responsibility and providing resources for improved forest management.

“We used to have a fire season; now we have a fire year. The resources under the bipartisan infrastructure bill will give us the ability to do better forest management, reduce the risk and will also allow us not to rob Peter to pay Paul, which is what’s happening today because of inadequate resources over a long period of time,” Vilsack said.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Gov. Kate Brown give a brief update on federal efforts to provide states like Oregon more resources to manage forests and fight wildfire during a visit to the Oregon National Guard's Anderson Readiness Center in Salem, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Gov. Kate Brown give a brief update on federal efforts to provide states like Oregon more resources to manage forests and fight wildfire during a visit to the Oregon National Guard's Anderson Readiness Center in Salem, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Sam Stites / OPB

“We ended up taking money from the management budget to be able to suppress the fire, and then may not have adequate resources to do the restoration and recovery work. … We want to be a better partner.”

Brown said that working in concert with the federal government — which is responsible for management and protection of more than 50% of Oregon’s forestlands — is imperative as investments in management, restoration and fire protection are carved out of budgets and turned into tangible resources in the coming years so that wildfire’s effect on Oregonians can be mitigated as much as possible.

“We have a helpful partner in the White House and a very experienced secretary (of agriculture) that understands the dynamics. And I think it is an incredible opportunity to collaborate in ways that we have not done so before,” Brown said.

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