Some argue that planting canola won't threaten other crops
By MITCH LIES
RICKREALL, Ore. -- Willamette Valley grass seed farmer Dean Freeborn doesn't have a lot of crop rotation options on his dryland farm. The state prohibits him from growing the one he is most excited about -- canola.
"To have control districts, or to say you can't have certified fields next to each other, seems reasonable," Freeborn said. "But just to say, 'No, you can't grow it at all,' to me it sets a bad precedent."
Freeborn hopes the Oregon Department of Agriculture will reconsider its canola-production restrictions in time for him to plant up to 100 acres of canola this fall.
That seems unlikely.
According to ODA Director Katy Coba: "There's been a lot of discussion with Mr. Freeborn and others, and some additional information was provided. After reviewing all that, we still don't believe we have any significant new information that would lead us to go back and revisit the rule any sooner than the (2012) sunset date."
The state plans to revisit the control district rules and could change some rule provisions in 2012.
As it now stands, the state restricts canola production in the Willamette Valley, three Central Oregon counties and two areas in Eastern Oregon where vegetable seed production occurs. The restrictions are in place for fear canola could uproot Oregon's $25 million vegetable seed industry and hamper fresh vegetable production.
Vegetable seed and fresh vegetable growers contend widespread canola production will dramatically increase insect and disease pressure, render crop unmarketable due to cross pollination and leave a trail of volunteer canola in ditches and field borders.
Seed buyers, they said, won't buy seed from Oregon if canola takes hold here.
Dan Hilburn, administrator of the Oregon Department of Agriculture's plant division, said international seed production specialists he talked to warned him to be careful about growing canola near vegetables.
"All these people knew about the Willamette Valley," Hilburn said. "They said, 'That's a very special place. Don't blow it.'"
Hilburn's discussions with foreign agronomists were part of an effort by state officials to learn if canola can co-exist with specialty seed crops. The state in conjunction with Oregon State University conducted three years of commercial scale experiments as part of that effort.
In a statement summarizing the experiments' results, Russ Karow, head of OSU's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, wrote: "Given the potential risk, precaution suggests not allowing canola production at this time."
Still, Freeborn contends the state is operating on incomplete information and banning nearly all Willamette Valley production prevents the state from ultimately learning whether canola and specialty seeds can co-exist. He also wants the state to continue studying the economic value of canola to Willamette Valley farmers.
The Oregon Farm Bureau agrees. In a letter Farm Bureau President Barry Bushue sent to the Oregon Department of Agriculture in February, Bushue said the Bureau would like the state to allow canola production in the valley on up to 1,000 acres "to continue research into the economic viability of canola."
"Oregon agriculture prides itself on taking advantage of opportunities for diversity and productivity," Bushue wrote. "The outright ban of a crop sets a dangerous precedent and is poor public policy."
Freeborn has argued before the Oregon Board of Agriculture that he should be allowed to grow canola if he isolates it from vegetable seed crops and follows other protocols that are in place for vegetable seed production. Vegetable seed growers use a pinning system on maps at county extension offices to ensure their crops are separated by at least three miles.
Freeborn points to research from an OSU entomologist and uses his experience growing the crop as evidence that if grown under this protocol, canola does not pose an inordinate risk to vegetable seed, fresh vegetable and specialty seed production.
Fears canola will become an invasive weed that will desecrate Oregon agriculture for years to come are invalid, he said. Even if some canola were to escape, it easily can be controlled with herbicides, he said. And the seed is soft and won't stay viable for more than a year or two. If it turns out canola is a problem, he said, growers can reverse the trend and halt production before it causes long-term problems.
Addressing concerns the crop creates excessive volunteers, Freeborn points to wheat acreage on his farm that hosted canola last year.
"You can't find any canola out there this year," he said.
Canola blooms ahead of most vegetable seed plants, he said, eliminating most concerns of cross pollination.
As for diseases, Freeborn said that even where he planted adjacent fields to canola in subsequent years, he didn't find high levels of disease.
"There was a little Sclerotinia, but you can have that in clover, vetches and beans," he said. "And the further we got from the field border, the less Sclerotinia we found. We couldn't find any Sclerotinia in the center of the field."
Freeborn's contentions run counter to those of the OSU research project, conducted between 2006 and 2008. The research showed high levels of seed shatter, which scientists said indicates volunteer canola could be a significant problem.
Researchers found that "pollen and bee travel indicate the potential for pollen movement up to five miles."
And researchers found mold, pollen beetle, cabbage maggot and other pests in canola -- discoveries that give rise to concerns of increased pest pressure.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture, in summarizing its decision to restrict canola production, wrote: "The decision ... to not allow canola production in a major part of the Valley is a precautionary decision. The research work that was done resulted in as many questions as answers."
Canola offers dryland growers several agronomic and economic opportunities not available with grass seed. For one, Freeborn gets paid within 30 days of delivery for the canola he brings to the Rickreall crusher that has offered to buy his canola seed.
By contrast, Freeborn expects to get paid for this summer's grass seed harvest "sometime between now and next spring," he said.
"Canola isn't going to make anybody rich," said Ryan Stadelman, a North Plains, Ore., farmer who grows canola just north of the valley's restricted zone. "But it seems to be a good rotation crop. And you've got to do something to get some cash flow."
Then there are the minimal inputs.
"Even if the price isn't what you might hope to get out of it, your input costs are low compared to other crops," Freeborn said.
Even at low prices, Freeborn said he can generate better profits from canola than he can this year from grass seed.
Freeborn also likes the fact he can use the same equipment to harvest canola that he uses for grass seed.
And incorporating a broadleaf crop in his rotation allows him to kill grass weeds and volunteer grass seed plants that can build up in his seed stands.
Freeborn is willing to isolate canola fields from vegetable seed fields to avoid the potential for cross pollination. He is willing to tarp trucks to avoid seed spillage during transportation. And he is comfortable growing only non-genetically modified canola.
Given these parameters, he believes the risk to vegetable seed and fresh vegetable production is minimal.
Mike Iverson, a fresh vegetable seed grower from Aurora, disagrees.
"This deal is fraught with huge risks," Iverson said. "It's not going to be a disaster two months after the first field is planted. But within a few years, we will have all kinds of problems with invasive weeds, because that's what canola is: It is an invasive weed."
Iverson also is concerned that as canola spreads, so will cabbage maggot and other pests that threaten his vegetable crops.
Freeborn has traveled the state in recent months to testify in front of the Oregon Board of Agriculture in meetings in Salem, Baker City and Klamath Falls.
At the most recent meeting, in Klamath Falls, Freeborn told board members that Willamette Biomass, the Rickreall crusher, is bringing in soybean and canola seed from out of state to meet its demand.
"We need this as an alternative crop," Freeborn said. "People are planting tall fescue back, and we can't get rid of what's already been grown.
"We feel the valley is big enough to grow both (vegetable seed and canola)," he said.
Given the depressed state of grass seed markets, Iverson said he can understand why growers are looking for a new alternative.
"But my goodness," he said, "don't put a bullet in your neighbor's head."