Gelser bill seeking to keep canola out of mid-valley passes Oregon House
Legislation to keep canola out of the Willamette Valley, where specialty seed growers fear it would contaminate their crops, passed the Oregon House of Representatives on Tuesday.
House Bill 2427, sponsored by Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, now goes to the Senate for a vote.
Canola seeds are crushed to make cooking oil or biodiesel, but the crop was barred from the valley until February, when the Oregon Department of Agriculture passed a rule allowing up to 2,500 acres to be planted.
That decision was stridently opposed by the area’s $32 million specialty seed industry, despite safeguards designed to protect their fields.
Seed growers argued that canola can readily cross-pollinate with a number of related plants grown here, including radish, cabbage, mustard, broccoli and chard, contaminating their crops.
They also worried that planting the oilseed crop near their fields could introduce new pests and diseases and pose a risk of “gene drift” from the genetically modified canola varieties favored by some commercial growers.
The measure cleared the full Ways and Means Committee last week and passed the House Tuesday morning by a 33-27 margin.
“It will be a close vote in the Senate, but I’m optimistic it will pass there, too,” Gelser said.
The District 16 representative said the canola question has been a contentious one because it pits one group of farmers against another. In one camp are the specialty seed producers, clover growers and fresh market vegetable farmers. In the other are grass seed growers, wheat producers and the Oregon Farm Bureau.
“People who usually agree on agriculture issues are finding themselves on different sides of this debate,” she said.
For Gelser, it makes sense to protect an established specialty seed industry against the risks posed by canola, especially given the recent suspension of wheat contracts by foreign buyers after a genetically modified plant was found in an Oregon field.
“I’ve been passionate about this bill for more than a year,” she said, “but the discovery of GMO wheat and the reaction to it made me really believe we were on the right track.”
The version of the bill that passed the House does include some compromise provisions. If not reauthorized, for instance, the measure would sunset in 2019. It also includes a $700,000 appropriation to fund a study by Oregon State University researchers to determine the compatibility of canola and other members of the brassica family with established Willamette Valley seed crops. Up to 500 acres of canola could be planted in the valley for research purposes.
A Molalla-based nonprofit called the Friends of Family Farmers led the charge to overturn the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s canola rule. Policy director Ivan Mulaski said he would have preferred an outright ban but called Gelser’s measure an acceptable compromise.
“We’re supporting the bill. It’s a good step forward,” Mulaski said. “It’s much better than the wholesale commercial production which the ODA rule would have allowed.”
Matt Crawford, an Amity-area farmer who heads the 70-member Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association, said his group was disappointed by the House vote but would continue to fight the measure in the Senate.
“We’re definitely disappointed that the state Legislature is going to choose which markets can and can’t succeed in the state,” Crawford added. “We feel the Department of Agriculture is better equipped to handle that and make rules to control how crops are planted.”