Farm regulators in Oregon want the authority to revoke shipping permits from nurseries that risk spreading plant diseases.

Under Senate Bill 256, the Oregon Department of Agriculture could block nurseries from shipping if they don’t comply with interstate standards for plant cleanliness.

The bill is intended as a last resort for dealing with nurseries that blatantly disregard procedures meant to control plant diseases, said Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

“It’s a nuclear deterrent, in large measure, for folks who are shipping infected plants negligently,” he said. “There’s a big difference in having a problem and perpetuating that problem.”

While the vast majority of nurseries take great care to ensure they’re shipping clean plants, the few companies that disregard phytosanitary hazards pose a danger to the rest of the industry, Stone said.

Competitors could try to stop shipments from Oregon from entering their state if a disease incident occurs, so SB 256 aims to alleviate such market concerns, he said.

“There are a lot of people who want our market share,” Stone said.

ODA can currently halt individual shipments of nursery stock, but the agency has limited resources to monitor thousands of trucks that leave the state each spring, he said.

Suspending or revoking a shipping permit is a more efficient way of keeping potentially diseased plants out of commerce, he said.

The expectation is that ODA will be in consistent contact with a grower who is “heading down this path” toward revocation, Stone said.

Oregon’s nursery industry prides itself on working closely with regulators and OAN’s board of directors requested that ODA expand its authority, he said. “We asked for this.”

As part of SB 256, the ODA would also increase the maximum fees for nursery licenses and upgrade its inspection process to reflect national trends in plant disease prevention.

The agency’s current proposal would raise the cap on license fees from $20,000 to $25,000, but the OAN wants the cap increased to $40,000. The share of gross revenue paid by nurseries known as a “millage rate” — a mill is one-tenth of a percent — would grow from five mills to seven mills under ODA’s proposal and to 10 mills under OAN’s amended version. License costs for Christmas tree growers would also increase under the legislation.

Actual fees paid by nurseries would still be tiered based on their size, said Lisa Hanson, ODA’s deputy director, during a March 11 hearing on the bill before the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

OAN prefers a larger increase in the license fee limit, which would let ODA gradually bump up actual fees over time, rather than having the agency return to the legislature for smaller hikes.

The bill would clarify the agency’s inspection and certification authority to allow for a “systems-based approach,” which would rely on growers to show they’re following sanitation and training protocols for plant health, said Hanson.

The method is “document heavy,” with the ODA auditing nursery records to ensure they follow the right steps, she said.

Under SB 256, the agency would have more flexibility to adopt plant health protocols that are being implemented by USDA, said Stone.

The systems approach focuses on preventing diseases instead of tracking down their origin after they’ve been discovered, he said.

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