“Cucumbers,” explains Jason Montecucco, “are all hand labor.”
They have to be picked, cleaned, stored cold and loaded for shipping. That’s true whether you’re sending them to a supermarket or, as Montecucco’s family farm outside Canby often does, making a contribution of fresh produce to the Oregon Food Bank or the Gleaners of Clackamas County. The food bank truck comes by about every week, and the shipment of cucumbers — or beets or parsnips or green beans – is welcome.
As Montecucco says, “This is good stuff. We’re not donating Twinkies.” For years, Oregon had a small tax credit to help farmers with the costs of getting their donated crops from the ground onto the OFB loading dock, and then it lapsed in 2011. This session of the Legislature, there’s a bill to restore it, and while everything about farming is seasonal, the moment for this couldn’t be more ripe.
“With less money coming into the state from food stamps, it’s becoming imperative to get more fresh produce,” says Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, a Columbia Gorge pear farmer and co-sponsor of the measure. Like cucumbers, pears don’t get onto the truck by themselves, and when a farming neighbor of Thomsen’s wanted to donate several tons, it took a great deal of arranging and a lot of volunteer effort — although most farmers would prefer to limit their fields to people who know what they’re doing.
The proposed restoration of the tax credit is intended to cover some of that gap — and to help with another one that widens steadily for the Oregon Food Bank.“We’ve done very well with retailers and processors,” says Phillip Kennedy-Wong, a policy advocate for the food bank, “but those two resources are going to be reducing over time” as technological efficiencies cut their surplus product. “It’s a huge benefit for us to have a tool to encourage more farmers and ranchers to donate.”
The bill moving through the Legislature, Senate Bill 1541, reported out by the House Revenue Committee Tuesday morning, would give farmers a tax credit of 15 percent of the value of donated produce. A main argument is whether 15 percent is enough; the state Department of Agriculture has suggested 50 percent, but co-sponsor Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, warns that in the current budget world anything over 15 percent would have problems in the Senate.
“Fifteen percent isn’t enough to entice a whole lot of people to give,” Thomsen says. “But we get it on the books at 15, we’ll have some hard numbers. We’re OK to start at 15.”
He estimates that the cost might start around $350,000, but says quickly that it’s “just a guess.”
Encouragement breeds imagination, and some kind of tax credit could also help the food bank’s efforts to work with some ranchers interested in donating livestock. Farmers throughout the state are already impressively generous to hunger efforts; it’s not unreasonable to have the state share some of their burden.
Local resourcefulness is especially useful at a time when, as Thomsen notes, “We need this more than ever,” as the new farm bill carries food stamp cuts that will hit particularly hard at Oregon. Federal commodity support for food banks is also waning, and a lot of that support isn’t fresh produce, the kind of fruits and vegetables vital in the diets of people who have to resort to filling their tables and their stomachs with the kind of foods stronger on bulk than nutrition.
As Jason Montecucco notes, the produce grown by Oregon farmers, in one of the richest agricultural regions in the world, is good stuff. Even with a few bumps and discolorations, it can be a dramatic presence in emergency food boxes, and it deserves a boost to get there. Fresh local vegetables distributed in the box next to the macaroni and the cans of chili are more than a dietary plan; they’re a statement about different parts of Oregon coming together, a statement that the state budget should be willing to underline.
Montecucco brought a degree in horticulture from Oregon State back to the family farm, where he also joined a longtime practice of donating part of the crop. “The food bank,” he says, “has been good to us.
“The bottom line is, nobody should go hungry in this country. Tax credit or not, nobody should go hungry.”
The state has a chance to add something to that recipe.
David Sarasohn’s column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.