Willamette Valley canola planting

Canola seed is emptied from a harvester into a truck in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A tentative deal on canola regulations in the region has proved unworkable.

Negotiations over canola restrictions in Oregon’s Willamette Valley have spilled into the legislative arena with the introduction of a bill limiting annual plantings to 500 acres.

Canola acreage in the valley was capped at 500 acres by lawmakers in 2013 after a dispute over how the crop should be regulated, but that limit was set to expire this year.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is currently planning to implement new rules for canola production before the 500-acre limit ends in July.

The agency had submitted options for regulating canola in the region to lawmakers last November based on a study by Oregon State University, which found the crop didn’t pose greater risks than related species grown for specialty seed.

While some of those regulatory alternatives would have required new legal authority for ODA — such as creating a public “pinning” system to avoid cross-pollination — the agency isn’t pursuing such proposals during the 2019 legislative session.

During a Feb. 19 legislative hearing, the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use introduced a bill that would extend the 500-acre limit indefinitely while directing ODA to develop recommendations to protect “the unique attributes of the specialty seed industry in this state.”

Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said the bill was introduced at the request of the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association, a group that’s concerned about adverse canola impacts, but that its introduction doesn’t imply the support of the committee or its members.

While the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association is “not unhappy” with how the ODA’s rule-making process is going, it’s concerned about cross-pollination risks since the agency isn’t seeking authority or funding for a public pinning map, said Greg Loberg, the group’s public relations chairman and manager of the West Coast Beet Seed Co.

The bill will “hopefully provide some leverage” during the rulemaking process to reflect WVSSA’s concerns, he said.

The organization has proposed 500 acres for annual canola planting because that amount is familiar to legislators, but it sees that limit as negotiable, Loberg said.

The group’s primary concern is regulating the number of sites where canola is grown to ensure that isolation distances can maintain the genetic purity of specialty seed crops, he said.

The Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association, which supports more flexible canola rules, is concerned about the “ripple effects” the proposal could have for the entire agriculture industry, said Anna Scharf, the group’s president.

Imposing such a regulatory structure may create further problems for the farming industry, especially in light of brewing conflicts over cross-pollination between marijuana and hemp, she said.

Canola regulations should be set through the ODA’s rulemaking process, since the agency has the resources, research and authority to set rules that prevent problems with pests, diseases and weeds, Scharf said.

“Let the department do its job,” she said.

Kathy Hadley, a canola farmer, compared the proposal to lawmakers enacting preferences for one chain of coffee shops over another.

“Where does it end?” she asked.

Over the past decade, roughly $1 million has been spent on two studies that confirmed canola doesn’t pose an elevated threat, Hadley said.

“This bill would ignore almost everything that’s been learned of a scientific nature and create a market district, which is a terrible road to go down,” she said.

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

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