Onion farmers try tax initiative to keep extension services
By MITCH LIES
Malheur County onion growers are knee deep in an effort to ensure Oregon State University's extension service and experiment station don't abandon them any time soon.
Led by Bob Komoto, manager of an onion packing company in Ontario, Ore., a coalition of agricultural extension supporters is gathering signatures to place a measure on the May 2012 ballot to fund the local extension service and experiment station with property taxes.
The measure would increase property taxes in Malheur County 23 cents per $1,000 assessed value, or about $46 a year on a $200,000 house.
"It's a cause worth fighting for," said Komoto, who is chairman of the Malheur Ag Extension Coalition.
Oregon State University extension administrators told county residents this year the extension service needs substantial community support to ensure it continues operating in Malheur County.
Administrators said they are looking for 25 percent of the service's operating costs from outside the college or the university could close the local extension and experiment station offices.
"That scared the bejeezus out of us," Komoto said. "The hair stood out on the back of my neck, because if the service closes, it won't be coming back.
"They don't close it one year and come back four years later," he said.
Komoto said the coalition already has collected more than the 1,815 signatures it needs to get the tax district on the May ballot, but it is continuing to gather signatures to ensure it has enough valid ones.
"Another 200 or 300 signatures and we should be on the safe side," Komoto said.
Komoto said the coalition hasn't determined its campaign strategy.
"All I can say is I think the strategy we have in mind is educating the voters of Malheur County of the need of maintaining the Malheur County extension service and experiment station," he said.
Currently, 20 extension service districts operate in Oregon.
Polk County, where voters approved a district in May of 2010, was the last district formed in Oregon. Citizens in Polk County pay an additional 7.5 cents per $1,000 assessed value to fund the service.
The tax generates about $350,000 per year, similar to the $365,000 expected from the Malheur tax district.
Komoto said the research and outreach provided by the local extension and experiment station offices have been invaluable to the region's agriculture.
"They've helped with research on a very difficult weed called yellow nutsedge," Komoto said. "It's only been recently we've been able to get a handle on that because the extension service and experiment station came up with a good mix of crop rotation and herbicides that can be used on that weed."
Also, he said, OSU extension and experiment station researchers helped growers develop control techniques for iris yellow spot virus, a plant disease transmitted by onion thrips.
"A great deal of experimenting went into finding procedures to monitor and control the disease," Komoto said.
Also, Komoto said, researchers have helped area growers adopt drip irrigation that has led to improved crops, less water usage and improved water quality in the region's rivers and streams.