Seed protection bill approved by full Oregon Legislature

SALEM — Early organization has paid off for supporters of a bill establishing minimum contract protections for all Oregon seed growers, which has passed both chambers of the Legislature.

House Bill 4068 was unanimously approved by the Senate on Feb. 22 and the House on Feb. 13.

The bill requires dealers to pay farmers market prices for seed by certain deadlines enforced by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Grass seed crops have received similar protections since 2011 under a statute aimed at preventing “slow pay, no pay” problems, but other types of seed were excluded from the legislation.

Before the idea of expanding the contract protections was brought to the Oregon lawmakers, the specifics were hashed out by farmers, seed dealers and trade groups.

By the time HB 4068 was introduced, all the details had been hammered out and the bill sailed through the House Agriculture Committee and Senate Business and Transportation Committee without any opposing testimony or even an amendment.

The lack of complication has served the bill well in 2018, when several other proposals have been killed off for being too grandiose or intricate to properly examine in a little more than a month.

The bill’s smooth course through the Legislature was referred to as a “love fest” by Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, who chairs the Senate Business and Transportation Committee.

Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, praised the bill for adhering to the “spirit of the short session” — it’s “narrow in scope” and has been “thoroughly vetted” by the affected parties, he said.

Anna Scharf, whose family farms near Amity, Ore., was instrumental in advocating the bill, Post said.

The concept for expanding contract protections to clover, meadowfoam, radish, turnip, mustard and other seeds was initiated by Scharf in 2017.

Initially, she sought to simply add other seed types to the class of crops protected under the 2011 statute. However, the proposal “unraveled” because the payment terms for grass seed didn’t align with those of other seeds, Scharf said.

For a year, the Oregon Farm Bureau and farmers “worked out the kinks” with seed industry stakeholders and arrived at a proposal that lawmakers could embrace as “bipartisan” and “not political,” she said.

“It shows they’re willing to acknowledge that farmers growing proprietary crops have a necessity and a right to be paid in a timely manner,” Scharf said. “We aired out our differences and figured out a law we could live within.”

Because most specialty seeds are proprietary, they can’t be sold on the open market if the contracting seed dealer fails to pay, she said.

The bill will level the playing field between growers and dealers, Scharf said. “It’s a game changer. I can’t tell you how excited I am about it.”

The proposal was inspired partly by a dispute over proprietary radish seed grown by Oregon farmers for a defunct seed company, she said.

When the seed company went broke, its bank tried to seize the radish seed from the farmers as collateral for a loan to the company, Scharf said. Though Oregon growers won the case in federal court, the ruling is now being challenged before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The problem drew the attention of the Polk County Farm Bureau, which then got the Oregon Farm Bureau involved in the issue, said Jenny Dresler, OFB’s state public policy director.

“We’re really proud of the process this bill went through and the compromise at the end of the day,” she said.

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