Specialty seed growers square off against biofuel backers over whether to allow canola in the Willamette Valley
At the age of 28, Hank Keogh has parlayed a horticulture degree and a few acres of land near Corvallis into a viable business growing seeds for the organic gardening market.
But he says a rule change by the Oregon Department of Agriculture is endangering his livelihood — and that of hundreds of other specialty seed growers — because it would relax restrictions on canola production in the Willamette Valley.
A member of the brassica plant family, canola readily cross-pollinates with a variety of other crops, from radishes and cabbage to broccoli, chard and mustard. For that reason, canola has been banned from the valley for years, except for a few test plots.
That changed Friday, when the ODA rule went into effect, and seed producers such as Keogh are afraid their industry will never be the same.
“The Willamette Valley is one of the top five seed-growing regions in the world,” Keogh said.
“The problem with canola is that it’s grown on such a large scale that it generates more pollen, and all that pollen will cross with the seeds we grow. ... It’s a low-value commodity crop that’s polluting a high-value specialty crop.”
Canola produces seeds that are crushed to make cooking oil and can also be used as a feedstock for biodiesel. Also known as rapeseed, the plant is widely grown in Canada (the common name is a marketing term derived from “Canada oil”) and in portions of the United States, with most of the American production centered in North Dakota.
Oregon growers planted a paltry 5,300 acres last year, but there’s interest in expanding those numbers. In the Willamette Valley, some farmers view canola as an attractive rotation crop that can provide income while interrupting pest and disease cycles in their grass and grain fields.
But increased plantings are staunchly opposed by the area’s specialty seed growers. They see canola as a serious threat to their $32 million-a-year industry, which relies on an intricate web of agreements between farmers to maintain safe distances between crops that can cross-pollinate each other and contaminate seed lots.
Under previous ODA rules, a 3.7 million-acre swath of the Willamette Valley from Portland to Creswell was off-limits to canola. But earlier this month, the department announced a new temporary rule allowing growers to plant canola around the fringes of the protected zone, which includes parts of Linn and Benton counties.
The new rule kicked in Friday, just in time for the canola planting season. The department also filed an application to make the revised language permanent when the temporary rule expires in 180 days.
Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba said the action was needed to break a long-running stalemate between canola promoters and seed producers after discussions brokered by the department failed to find consensus.
“This issue has been in front of us for years,” Coba said.
She argued that seed growers still have plenty of protections under the new rule.
Almost 85 percent of the valley’s seed production is concentrated in the central part of the original control district, where canola still is prohibited, Coba said. It can only be grown in the outer zone, and it can only be planted in two of every five years in a given field.
Growers must control volunteer plants that sprout in the vicinity of their fields, keep seeds contained during transport and clean their equipment before moving it off-site.
They also are required to participate in the pinning map system operated by the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association, which uses color-coded pins to mark crop locations and observe isolation distances of one to three miles, depending on species, between their canola and other seed crops it could cross-pollinate.
Coba said the rule aims to balance competing interests, but in the end it’s not her department’s job to protect one group of farmers from another.
“The use of a control district is to protect agriculture from weeds, pests and disease,” Coba said. “We can’t establish a control district because there’s market concern for a product.”
Seed producers, however, are up in arms.
“The Oregon Department of Agriculture is opening Pandora’s box,” said Nick Tichinin, president of Universal Seed Co. in Independence.
The pinning map system, he said, is a gentlemen’s agreement that works for seed growers because they all stand to lose something if their crops are cross-pollinated. But canola growers have no such concerns because cross-pollination won’t diminish the value of their oilseed crop.
“Somebody who’s growing canola has no skin in the game,” Tichinin said.
What’s more, canola can cross with wild brassicas that grow as roadside weeds, migrating beyond farmers’ fields and gradually spreading canola pollen across the valley.
Parts of Europe, Asia and Australia already have lost brassica seed industries because of the introduction of canola, and Tichinin’s fear is that Oregon could be next.
“The whole world is looking in on this with significant alarm, believe me, because the Willamette Valley is one of the few remaining seed-production regions left that’s not already contaminated by canola,” he said.
The Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association issued a statement denouncing the rule that was endorsed by 47 other organizations, including the Oregon Clover Commission, the Oregon Fresh Market Growers Association, regional seed associations from Washington and California and seed companies from Japan, Korea, Australia, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The Friends of Family Farmers, a Molalla-based nonprofit representing small growers, sent a 16-page letter to Coba, Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state Board of Agriculture asking that the rule be scrapped and has been using the Internet mustering support for its cause.
Friends of Family Farmers also created an online petition that had more than 18,000 signatures by Friday and plans to file for a court injunction to block the change.
“We are looking at everything possible to try and keep this temporary rule from being put into place,” said Leah Rodgers, the organization’s field director.
Specialty seed growers, Rodgers said, tend to be small operators who are able to make a decent living only because their crops are relatively high-value. Their customers demand a pure product, especially in the organic market, and could turn to other regions for seed if there’s even the possibility of contamination by canola.
There’s also concern that the canola planted here would be a genetically modified organism engineered to be tolerant of the popular herbicide Roundup. GMO transgenes are considered anathema by organic seed buyers and are barred by law from some overseas markets.
For Oregon’s specialty seed producers, Rodgers said, letting canola into the valley would mean “the complete devastation of their livelihood.”
A matter of perspective
For another set of farmers, however, it could be a boon.
Kathy Hadley, who farms about 1,000 acres with her father near Rickreall in Polk County, said she had “tremendous success” raising canola a few years back as part of an Oregon Department of Agriculture-Oregon State University field trial.
She said she was able to produce high yields, good weed control and received a better financial return than other options such as clover, vetch and peas, whose prices tend to be more volatile.
“We haven’t had a really good rotation option that you can consistently make money on,” she said. “Canola does fill that need very well.”
Hadley is one of about 60 farmers who belong to the recently formed Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association, which petitioned the ODA in January to relax restrictions on canola. She dismisses the seed producers’ concerns as overblown and sees their opposition as overly protectionist.
“It’s up to the growers to work with each other to try and work these things out,” she said, “and not for the state to come in with too heavy a hand.”
Oregon Farm Bureau spokeswoman Katie Fast agrees. While the organization hasn’t taken a formal position on the new rule, in general it backs the notion that farmers who want to grow canola should have the option.
“We recognize there were special areas of the valley that needed some protection, but the previous rules blocked out the whole valley, and we didn’t think that was fair, either,” Fast said.
“We just can’t support the banning of a viable crop.”
Oregon’s fledgling biofuels industry also has a stake in the rule change.
To encourage homegrown alternative fuels production, the Legislature approved a 5 cent-per-pound subsidy for oilseed crops, and entrepreneurs positioned themselves to enter the market.
Willamette Biomass Processors built a commercial crushing plant on the site of an old grain elevator in Rickreall in 2007. The plant has the capacity to process up to 100 million pounds of oilseed a year, but so far the local supply has lagged.
Tomas Endicott, the company’s vice president for business development, has worked closely with Hadley and other farmers to get the Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association off the ground and push for increased canola production.
“The Willamette Valley’s perfect for canola,” he said. “We could process whatever is grown here.”
SeQuential Biofuels, which operates a biodiesel refinery in Salem, could be a major customer for canola oil from Endicott’s plant. But SeQuential CEO Ian Hill said his company is ambivalent about canola, despite close ties to Willamette Biomass Processors (Endicott is a major shareholder in SeQuential).
Many of SeQuential’s biodiesel customers have serious concerns about canola, especially the genetically modified kind. And while the Salem refinery is operating well below capacity, Hill said he shares those concerns and doesn’t want to alienate his client base.
“We have very strong feelings about GMO crops,” he said. “We have made a commitment to our customers that, as much as we can, we will not sell biodiesel that is made from GMO crops.”
Russ Karow, the head of the crop and soil science department at Oregon State University, has been involved in the canola vs. specialty seed discussion for more than a decade.
In a summary of research on the topic presented to ODA in 2010, Karow concluded that the work done to date “has resulted in as many questions as answers” and that “given the potential risks, precaution suggests not allowing canola production at this time.”
In an interview last week, he said the new rule might allow specialty seeds and canola to coexist in the valley — as long as all the regulations are observed.
“If people follow the rules, I think this could work, but there’s no guarantee,” he said.
“The bottom line is this does change the game.”
But for some observers, the question comes down to this: Is Oregon better off protecting its existing specialty seed industry or promoting an oilseed industry that could boost alternative fuel production?
“We have to make choices,” said Dan McGrath, an OSU Extension Service agent in Linn County.
“In the past, there’s been the political will to pass laws to limit rapeseed production in the Willamette basin. The problem is we don’t know which horse to bet on — the past or the future.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-758-9529.