A tentative agreement appears to be congealing over canola regulations in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, potentially resolving years of acrimony without the further intervention of lawmakers.
While the specifics have yet to be hammered out, the basic regulatory mechanism for allowing canola to coexist with related crops has met with cautious support — or at least a lack of opposition — from industry stakeholders.
“If we can move forward together, we’re in a much better position than we were two weeks ago or three weeks ago,” said Jonathan Sandau, government affairs specialist with the Oregon Farm Bureau, during a March 8 meeting in Salem.
Controversies over canola in the Willamette Valley stretch back for years, with specialty seed producers fearing problems with cross-pollination, pests, weeds and diseases, while other farmers see the crop as a valuable rotation option.
In 2013, lawmakers restricted canola production in the region to 500 acres per year but that regulatory scheme expires in July, giving the Oregon Department of Agriculture scant time to replace it with new rules.
Although the ODA had hoped to keep disputes over canola out of the Legislature this year, a bill that would indefinitely extend the 500-acre annual limit was introduced in late February at the behest of the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association, which worries about the crop’s negative effects.
The proposal is seen as a “placeholder” that may give the group “leverage” if it becomes uneasy with the ODA’s rule-making process for canola production.
The agency initially proposed creating an “exclusion zone” in which canola would face heightened restrictions but the idea didn’t gain much traction in a rules advisory committee, or RAC, consisting of various agricultural representatives.
The ODA’s had better luck with its more recent concept of “stacking” existing regulatory authorities to prevent cross-pollination among species of the Brassicaceae family, which includes canola and some specialty seed crops.
Under this proposal, the agency would create “control areas” for blackleg — a fungal disease of Brassicaceae crops — and for the production of rapeseed, a crop with multiple varieties including canola.
The agency would then enforce a three-mile isolation distance to ensure rapeseed contains a low percentage of erucic acid, which is desirable in food-grade canola, while also effectively protecting related specialty seed crops from cross-pollination with canola.
Those control areas would be overseen with the help of a rapeseed advisory board while ODA would also enter into “cooperative agreement” to use a “pinning map” owned by WVSSA to ensure sufficient isolation distances are followed.
In effect, this “memorandum of understanding” would allow ODA to behave like a member seed company of WVSSA by “pinning” canola on its map and creating a “priority” for the crop in certain locations, said Lisa Hanson, the agency’s deputy director.
Such a priority allows the same crop to be grown the following year within a mile of the original pinning location.
This system would address the concern of canola growers who don’t want to directly join the WVSSA as affiliate members, said Kathy Hadley, a farmer who grows the crop.
Information about where certain crops are pinned would also be protected from public records requests, said Sandau.
In the past, fields of genetically engineered sugar beets have been vandalized in Oregon, leading to concerns about future sabotage.
The arrangement may provide a pathway around enacting a maximum cap on canola acres, though the concept is “not there yet,” said Charles Ortiz, WVSSA’s public relations chair.
The rapeseed advisory committee could also present a united front in pressing lawmakers and government officials for better roadside weed management, which would reduce problems with pests, weeds, diseases and cross-pollination, said Anna Scharf, president of the Willamette Valley Oilseed Producer Association, which supports more regulatory flexibility for canola.
Members of the RAC plan to discuss the concept with their respective organizations and report back at a meeting scheduled for March 21 while ODA officials work on drafting the associated rules.
“I feel like we’ve made more productive progress in the last two meetings than we have in a long time,” said Hanson, ODA’s deputy director.