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Is the Northwest Grape Foundation Service “Pork”?

Posted by | September 29, 2008

Recently, the organization Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) issued an analysis of the 2009 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, also known as the Farm Bill. The organization focuses on government waste of tax payers’ money, a laudable form of activism.

But one of the appropriations in the Farm Bill that CAGW calls pork simply isn’t. In a press release, CAGW says Washington senators Murray and Cantwell added what they call “an example of pork” to the Bill. The appropriation was for $237,000 for the “Wine Grape Foundation Block” (actually it’s a service, not a “block,” and its official name is the Northwest Grape Foundation Service or NWGFS), based at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser (WSU IAREC). I want to be clear that Washington State University is the manager, not the owner, of the NWGFS.

The Northwest Grape Foundation Service is part of the National Clean Plant Network, a nationwide effort to supply agricultural producers with “clean,” virus-free plant material. Considerable scientific expertise and rigor is needed to thoroughly screen plant material for viruses and to propagate the clean material. The clean material is then released to certified commercial nurseries throughout the Pacific Northwest, where it is grown for sale to producers. Considering the prevalence of viruses and the expense of keeping them at bay, the National Clean Plant Network is not only a great investment, it is a necessary one.

Perhaps the oddest thing about CAGW’s charge is that it is completely at odds with their own criteria for “pork,” which includes the following statement: “Serves only a local or special interest.”

Gary Ballard, left, and Markus Keller, right, of the Northwest Grape Foundation Service.I asked Markus Keller, WSU viticulturist and co-director of the NWGFS (with Gary Ballard; Keller is on the right in the photograph), about this, and he pointed out that this is completely untrue:

It is important to realize that, as the name implies, the Northwest Grape Foundation Service serves the grape (including wine, juice, table, and ornamental) industries throughout the Pacific Northwest. It is neither just about Washington, nor just about the wine industry. Funding does not come from the federal government alone, but is a mix of federal, state, and industry sources plus income generated from the sale of clean plant material. For a story (“Establishing a Solid Foundation”) on the importance of this program for the regional industries, please refer to Washington State Magazine, Fall 2006 issue, by Andrea Vogt.

Another aspect of CAGW’s analysis is troubling. In their press release announcing agricultural pork in the Farm Bill, they say “Wine in the state is a $3 billion industry.” This is troubling because, as Keller points out, the NWGFS serves more than the wine industry and more than the state of Washington. In reality, it is one component of a national network.

Markus Keller disarms the charge of “pork” by putting the facts into a broader context:

  1. The Foundation Plant Services (FPS) at UC Davis received several million federal dollars to construct their state-of-the-art facilities a few years ago.
  2. The national clean tree fruit program (NRSP-5), which is also housed at WSU IAREC in Prosser, has been federally funded for many years.
  3. The federal funding for NWGFS has been an important cornerstone for the negotiations leading to the creation of the National Clean Plant Network (NCPN), which will fund all of the above-mentioned programs with federal dollars.

No matter how fiscally conservative, most political experts and economists believe there is a role for government – namely in the provision of “public goods.” This is certainly the case for many of the services provided by the NCPN.

Should CAGW find programs at WSU that truly meet their criteria for “pork,” we of course welcome their critique. Until then, we hope they’ll reconsider their charge and, in the future, not rush to judgment based on criteria unfettered by real-world context.