By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Going by sheer numbers, canola-production opponents ruled the day at a hearing here Sept. 28 on an Oregon Department of Agriculture proposal to allow farmers to grow more canola in the Willamette Valley.
More than 70 canola opponents testified during the nearly four-hour hearing at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.
But the 14 people to testify in support of the rule, which would allow more canola to be grown, hope the department takes into account more than sheer numbers.
The ODA has proposed opening 1.7 million acres in the valley to canola production. The production zone would surround a nearly 2 million acre protected zone, where canola would be banned.
More than 80 percent of the valley's specialty seed crops are grown in the 2 million acre protected zone, the department said.
ODA restricted canola production in the valley beginning in 2005 to protect specialty seed crops from an increase in pest and disease pressure that producers say is imminent if canola is grown on a commercial scale.
Opponents to the rule said commercial scale canola production poses an unwarranted risk to the health of Willamette Valley's high-value, world renown specialty seed industry. In other areas of the world where canola was introduced, it increased pest and disease pressure and spread outside of production areas, opponents said.
"Our valley is in fact a precious and world renown resource as one of a few remaining places to grow certain seeds that are planted throughout every corner of the world," said Nick Tichinin, owner of Universal Seed Co. in Independence, Ore.
Tichinin urged the department to keep in place its existing rule, saying he has been told by customers they will pull out of the valley if canola is grown here.
John McCulley, administrator of the Oregon Clover Commission, said clover producers have been told Midwest buyers will reject seed if canola is found in a shipment.
"Any canola seed found in clover would cause the complete rejection by Midwestern farmers," McCulley said in reading from a letter from a retired University of Illinois extension agent.
"The valley has survived without canola and will continue to survive without canola," said Loren Behrman, a clover producer in the valley. "The question is, can it survive with canola?"
Proponents, conversely, said the rule represents a reasonable compromise. Properly managed, they said, canola does not pose a threat to specialty seed production.
Perrydale, Ore., grower Matt Crawford said he "desperately needs an economic rotation crop to break weed and disease cycles on his acres."
"My farm is unfairly damaged agronomically and economically every year I can't grow canola," he said.
Crawford said he believed the 2 million acres offlimits to canola in the valley in the department's proposed rule provides adequate protection for specialty seed producers.
Crawford said he knows of parts of the world where farmers have not properly managed canola, but he also knows of parts where canola is managed properly. And, he said, Willamette Valley farmers are some of the best in the world.
Canola is not a noxious weed, he said. Volunteers are easily controlled with proper management.
Crawford also said canola will not introduce new pests to the valley because canola has been grown here in the past and other similar brassica crops are grown here currently.
"Canola production will not introduce any new pests or diseases that are not already here," he said.
Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the ODA, said the department hopes to have a decision on the proposal by the end of the year.
As for whether the disparity in numbers to testify for and against the proposal carries weight, Pokarney said: "We consider the merits of the arguments moreso than sheer numbers."