A key legislative committee has voted 3-2 to approve a bill limiting canola production Oregon’s Willamette Valley to 500 acres annually.
Senate Bill 885 is the last surviving proposal to indefinitely extend current restrictions on the controversial crop in the region after two similar bills recently died in the House.
On April 4, the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources referred the bill to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, which makes budget decisions, with a “do pass” recommendation.
The decision comes at a sensitive time because the Oregon Department of Agriculture is simultaneously trying to draft rules for regulating canola once the existing law governing its cultivation expires in July.
If lawmakers approve new legislation restricting canola in the Willamette Valley, that would render any ODA regulations moot. So, as long as a canola bill survives in the Legislature, a question mark will hang over the agency’s rule-making process.
The agency plans to move forward in the next few weeks with proposing regulations, which will likely include an exclusion zone with heightened restrictions for growing canola, said Lisa Hanson, ODA’s deputy director.
“We want to have a backstop ready, depending on what will happen with the bill,” Hanson said.
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, both voted against SB 885 because they said decisions about canola regulation should be made by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Critics of SB 885 argue that continuing to impose the 500-acre cap would fly in the face of an Oregon State University study ordered by lawmakers six years ago that concluded canola doesn’t pose greater pest, disease or weed risks than related crops.
“This is not scientifically justifiable and the research does not support it,” said Anna Scharf, president of the Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association, which supports increased canola production, during an April 2 legislative hearing.
Canola production was restricted to 500 acres a year by lawmakers in 2013 and that cap was later extended through the summer of 2019.
Meanwhile, growers in the Willamette Valley requested to grow more than 1,600 acres of the crop this year, Scharf said.
Retaining the 500-acre limit would send the message that Oregon lawmakers distrust OSU’s research and are willing to pass laws without the input of the ODA, she said.
“If you don’t trust OSU, why’d we send them nearly $1 million over the last 10 years?” asked farmer Troy Hadley, referring to state-funded canola studies.
Hadley said canola serves as a rotation crop that makes him less reliant on field burning and rivals grass seed production in profitability.
The Legislature should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in agriculture, said Marie Bowers, a Willamette Valley farmer. “The markets do a good job of that already.”
Under a proposed rule considered by ODA, the agency would have required “isolation” distances of three miles between canola and related seed crops to prevent cross-pollination.
The regulation would have been enforced with the assistance of a “pinning map” maintained by the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association, which is concerned about genetic contamination of vegetable seeds in the Brassicaceae family.
The WVSSA ultimately decided that it couldn’t agree to the proposal without a maximum canola acreage to protect against potential adverse effects, which convinced ODA to shelve the proposal because the agency lacks legal authority to impose such a limit.
Charles Ortiz, a representative of WVSSA, told lawmakers that extending the 500-acre cap was a “workable compromise” that would continue to protect the “jewel” of quality seed production in the region.
“When a gardener or a farmer plants a seed, it’s with the expectation that the plant will look like the picture on the package — true to type,” he said.
Keeping the 500-acre limit is a “reasonable accommodation” that would preserve the Willamette Valley’s premier status as a specialty seed producer, said Ivan Maluski, policy director of the Friends of Family Farmers nonprofit.
Maintaining the current regime with new legislation was among the options ODA presented last year in a report to lawmakers, he said.
The threat of genetic impurities from canola, meanwhile, would jeopardize the market for specialty seeds grown in the Willamette Valley, said Eric Setniker, president of the Universal Seed Co.
“It is true we have customers who will abandon this production area we’ve built over a number of years,” he said.