Torres farm internship bill clears Senate labor committee

Today members of the state Senate Labor and Commerce Committee unanimously advanced Sen. Nikki Torres’ legislation to help support the next generation of Washington farmers by expanding the state’s farm internship program.

“The average age of a Washington farmer is nearly 59,” said Torres, R-Pasco, who represents the largely rural and agricultural 15th Legislative District, which includes parts of five central Washington counties. “One of the most important challenges we face is the preservation of farming in Washington and making sure that the next generation is ready to step up with knowledge of modern farming techniques, sustainability strategies and knowledge of how to run a successful farming business.

“This bill will help expand the farm intern program across the state, to counties where there are currently willing, but ineligible, applicants eager to participate.”

In 2010, the Legislature directed the state Department of Labor and Industries to establish a farm internship pilot project, which has expired and been extended or reestablished several times since. The pilot project, which originally began with just a few counties, is now available in 19, but has received requests in several counties that are not authorized to participate.

Under Substitute Senate Bill 5156, the farm internship program would be expanded to all counties and would no longer have an expiration date. The measure would also require L&I to certify that the participating farms would allow interns to participate in career and technical education or other educational content with courses in agriculture.

Torres’ bill would define a small farm as one with annual sales of less than $265,000, rather than less than $250,000, as it is currently.

Aaron Czyzewski with Food Lifeline testifying in support of Sen. Torres’ bill to expand the farm internship program.

SSB 5156 received a public hearing Monday in the Senate labor committee, where it gained broad bipartisan support.

Aaron Czyzewski with Food Lifeline, a Feeding America Partner focused on ending hunger in western Washington, testified in strong support of the bill.

“Simply put, we depend on Washington farmers for food,” Czyzewski told the committee. “We have a strong, and growing and important partnership between hunger-relief programs, government, and Washington growers and producers of all sizes. Together we sourced 70 million pounds of Washington-grown produce that was donated to us last year.

“I am here to voice support for growing the state’s agricultural workforce.”

Torres called the measure a good bipartisan bill that has the potential to make a big difference in the lives of farmers, students and Washington families facing food insecurity and hunger.

The bill now moves to the Rules Committee, the final stop before consideration by the full Senate.