MEDFORD, Ore. — To Elise Higley, it’s about “a big company coming in here” and growing genetically engineered sugar beet seed.
Higley, a small farmer in Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley, says, “we want to grow whatever we want to grow and the big corporations are going to say they want to grow genetically modified crops.”
Higley directs a campaign to pass a county ordinance banning the growth of genetically modified plants in Jackson County. The 11-page ordinance drafted by GMO Free Jackson County is on the May 20 ballot after a successful 2013 petition signature drive.
To Lee Bradshaw, an Eagle Point cattle rancher, Measure 15-119 is about property rights and the costs to county taxpayers for enforcing the ordinance.
“It empowers any person or special interest group to file a lawsuit against a grower simply based on a suspicion of noncompliance,” he wrote in a recent opinion piece published in the Medford Mail Tribune. Bradshaw is co-director of the campaign working to defeat the ordinance.
“They will come on your place, telling you how to farm. It’s a scary deal,” Bradshaw said last week after taking a break from turning out irrigation water in his lower pasture.
Add in the passionate supporters and opponents, the regional and national interest, and you have what is the most expensive local election in memory for Jackson County, a 2,802-square-mile county perched on the border with California. About 55 percent of the county’s 204,640 people live in the three largest cities, Medford, Ashland and Central Point.
Reports filed through April 17 with the Oregon Secretary of State indicate the three primary political action campaigns involved received over $1.1 million in contributions. Significant amounts of that money is booked for local television advertising, which will run until close to election day.
The petition signature campaign conducted by GMO Free Jackson County and the election campaign being carried out by Our Family Farms Coalition show $237,571 in direct contributions, in-kind donations and sales of campaign-purchased items.
GMO Free Jackson County began collecting contributions in 2012. The largest contributors to the coalition, in addition to $70,000 transferred from GMO Free Jackson County, are:
• Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a family-owned business in Escondido, Calif., which distributes its product widely through stores and Internet sales: $25,000.
• Organic Consumers Fund, a political action fund in Minnesota that supports members of the Organic Consumers Association: $20,000.
• Mercola.com Health Resources, an alternative medicine business in Schaumburg, Ill.: $15,000.
Good Neighbor Farmers, the political action committee that opposes 15-119 reports $886,567 in direct contributions and in-kind donations. They began collecting contributions, kicked off with $25,000 from Oregon Farm Bureau Federation. Farm Bureau has since put additional money into the opposition campaign, along with most of Oregon’s county Farm Bureaus, and Farm Bureaus from seven other states.
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and Oregon Wheat Growers League also wrote checks to Good Neighbor Farmers. The largest contributors are three giants of the agricultural chemical and seed industry:
• Monsanto, the chemical and biotechnology company: $183,294.10.
• DuPont Pioneer, the seed production division of the chemical company: $129,647.05.
• Syngenta, a global agribusiness company, which among other things, breeds the sugar beet seeds that figure in the Jackson GMO controversy: $75,000.
Among the television ads all of that money buys is a new opposition video that began airing last week in the Medford market. C.W. Smith who was a popular sheriff and county commissioner, is seen in retirement from public office on his hay ranch, saying, “I don’t believe Jackson County should be in the business of policing farmers.”
Pro ordinance advocates use Chuck Burr, who said he lost $4,400 worth of seed because of a “pollen trespass made my chard seed unsalable.”
For Ken Dannas, a non-farmer who lives in Talent and last week manned a Yes on 15-119 tent at the Medford Growers Market, it’s support for small farmers that counts.
“I eat the stuff,” he says of reasons to support locally grown food from local farmers.
The opposition campaign is being coordinated by Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a coalition of agriculture-related businesses based in Salem. Paulette Pyle, the OFS veteran who looked at extensive public opinion polls taken in Jackson County, said the No on 15-119 message needs to focus on added costs to a county government, which has been trimming services for several years.
Danny Jordan, the county administrator, said in a report to the board of commissioners that if the ordinance passes, the Jackson County government faces lots of questions over the meaning of the citizen-drafted proposal. Among the tough questions is basic language that makes it unlawful to grow genetically engineered plants, and definitions that could apply to some ornamental plants sold by nurseries and home improvement stores.
“There are a ton of variables,” Jordan said as he began his report to the county governing board.