SALEM — The most controversial subjects facing agriculture — pesticides, fertilizers, biotechnology, antibiotics and confined animal feeding operations — won’t be debated by Oregon lawmakers this year.
The absence of proposed bills dealing with these topics is surprising, since they’re regularly broached during the state’s annual legislative sessions, said Scott Dahlman, policy director for the Oregonians for Food and Shelter agribusiness group.
It’s unlikely that lawmakers have simply given up on tweaking the statutes dealing with these matters, though.
Rather, tougher restrictions on the number of bills introduced by senators, representatives and committees during the 2018 short legislative session simply convinced lawmakers to focus their energies elsewhere, he said.
Even so, agricultural lobbyists will manage to stay busy during the roughly six weeks the Oregon Legislature will convene this year during February and early March:
• Land use: One perennial controversy facing Oregon agriculture — land use restrictions on farmland — will be revived as usual in 2018.
Under Senate Bill 1502, counties with fewer than 50,000 residents could allow industrial and commercial developments on “nonresource lands” with lower-quality soils, regardless of their zoning.
The bill is similar to failed proposals floated during previous legislative sessions, which would have exempted counties with fewer than 50,000 residents and zero population growth from statewide land use planning goals.
The goal of these proposals is to stimulate growth in parts of rural Oregon that have economically stagnated, but the Oregon Farm Bureau and conservation groups oppose the changes.
The newly introduced legislation, SB 1502, recognizes further economic development is needed in Eastern Oregon, said Dave Hunnicutt, executive director of the Oregonians In Action property rights group.
“While the western part of the state has prospered, Eastern Oregon has not, and counties need to be able to act quickly when opportunities present themselves, so that they are more competitive with other rural areas throughout the West,” he said.
In the case of SB 1502, the Farm Bureau is pleased the proposal doesn’t encompass residential developments but the organization remains concerned about impacts to farmland, said Mary Anne Cooper, its public policy counsel.
“We’re not saying the system is perfect but this is too broad of a brush to fix any problems that might exist,” she said.
• Seed payments: In 2011, Oregon lawmakers enacted stricter time requirements for seed companies to pay farmers for grass seed crops. At the time, demand for grass seed had withered due to the global financial crisis and housing downturn, causing growers to face prolonged delays in receiving payments.
Under House Bill 4068, these protections would be extended to other seed crops.
Other seed crops weren’t included in the 2011 legislation, but since then, “attitudes have changed, leadership has changed, farmers have changed,” said Anna Scharf, who supports the new bill and whose family farms near Perrydale, Ore.
Support for the bill has likely gained traction partly due to an ongoing controversy over radish seed, in which a seed company didn’t pay farmers for roughly $6 million worth of the crop, she said.
The seed company’s bank later tried to seize the radish seed from the farmers as collateral for a loan, which is still being litigated in federal court.
Representatives of growers and seed companies approve of the bill, which will provide lawmakers with the opportunity for a non-controversial “win,” Scharf said. “We’ve got great bipartisan support.”
• Reservoir transfers: A changed legal interpretation of Oregon water law by the state’s Department of Justice has recently stopped the Oregon Water Resources Department from approving water transfers among storage reservoirs.
Senate Bill 1558 aims to clarify that such transfers are permissible, but the complexity of water law will make that task trickier than it would outwardly appear, said Mary Anne Cooper of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Amending the statute to function as intended will require more than adding a word or two, so lawmakers will need to be careful how the new language will be construed, she said.
• Mobile devices: Exceptions to Oregon’s prohibition against using cellphones while driving have been greatly narrowed in recent years.
Farmer advocates want the exemption expanded slightly with House Bill 4116, which would allow people to use mobile devices while transporting livestock or guiding a vehicle that’s transporting livestock, among other provisions.
Oregon’s ban on cell phones while driving once had a broad exemption for work-related communications. While this was eventually changed, farmers continued to be allowed to use mobile devices for agriculture-related activities.
That provision was also eliminated last year due to continued worries about accidents caused by distracted driving.