Cranberry harvest

Cranberries are prepared for harvest in a flooded Oregon bog. A bill being considered by Oregon lawmakers would remove cranberries from a list of high-value crops, thereby easing farm dwelling construction on cranberry farmland.

Economic troubles in the cranberry industry have spurred a proposal to reduce the difficulty of building dwellings on Oregon farmland dedicated to the crop.

Proponents of House Bill 2573 say it’s intended to allow farmers to live on the same property where they grow cranberries, which have severely dropped in price due to an oversupply in recent years. The bill would remove cranberries from the list of high-value crops under Oregon land use laws, effectively lowering the income threshold for building a home on farm property from $80,000 to $40,000 a year.

Farmers want to be able to reside on the same land they cultivate, which often isn’t possible in the cranberry industry’s current downturn, according to supporters of HB 2573.

“The ability to put a farm house on there and live and work at the same place becomes much more important for people,” said Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, during a recent legislative hearing.

Coos and Curry counties are the primary cranberry-growing areas in Oregon, which generated about $10.4 million from the crop in 2016 — down from about $36 million nearly a decade earlier, said Melissa Cribbins, a Coos County commissioner.

Cribbins said the bill wouldn’t “open a large door” to new development since cranberry production is highly localized in Oregon and limited to land that’s generally not suitable for growing other high-value crops.

“It’s not like there would be no criteria at all. They would have to meet a $40,000 test to build on their property,” she said. “We’re trying to keep people growing cranberries and not get them out of the business.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau is “comfortable” with the legislation moving forward, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the organization, noting that some growers may be compelled to switch from cranberry production to other farm uses meet a lower annual income test.

The 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group is opposed to HB 2573 partly because it’s a “slippery slope” to eliminate one crop from the list of high-value crops, potentially removing protections against “nonfarm developments such as golf courses,” said Meriel Darzen, rural lands attorney for the group. The proposal raised concerns among some lawmakers on the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use, which is considering HB 2573.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, cited a determination by Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development that the bill could allow for “golf courses, private parks and landfills” in addition to farm dwellings.

“I’m worried about conversion from agricultural uses altogether,” Helm said.

The committee’s chair, Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, recalled efforts by a major Southern Oregon pear company to change land use laws to ease housing development.

The company was facing financial problems and filed for bankruptcy protection, but the pear market eventually rebounded, Clem said.

“We did not switch uses because times got tough in the market,” he said. “I don’t want people coming here when prices get low for whatever and saying let’s lower the threshold.”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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