Senate proposal stirs up a longtime controversy over canola in the Willamette Valley 

Lawmakers heard from farmers and advocates on both sides, with millions of dollars on the line

By: - March 8, 2023 3:31 pm
canola field

Canola farming is growing in the Northwest, with acreage in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana tripling since 2016. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The Oregon Legislature is addressing a 30-year controversy over a ban on Willamette Valley canola farming. 

On Wednesday, farmers and advocates argued for and against Senate Bill 789 during a public hearing of the state Senate Natural Resources Committee. The proposal would make permanent a near-complete ban on canola farms in the valley.

Both sides claim to represent small family farms against big industry. Supporters say they are protecting family seed farms from canola. Opponents say the bill would limit the choices of farmers and cater to big seed companies.

At stake is the lucrative seed-growing industry in the valley and the effect that canola can have on related seed plants. Canola is a member of the brassica family, along with vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale. Growing these plants for seed is a $15-25 million a year business in the Willamette Valley, supporting about 200 jobs on mostly small family farms. Brassica seeds, especially when grown organically, are one of the most profitable crops available to valley farmers. Because canola is such a close relative, its pollen can affect the seeds of other brassica plants, threatening the livelihood of seed growers.

Canola farming is growing in the Northwest, with acreage in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana tripling since 2016. But in the valley, it has been limited to only 500 acres out of 1.7 million acres of cropland.

A total of 16 people testified at Wednesday’s hearing, and 26 submitted written testimony, with the latter mostly supporting the ban. Supporters told the committee that the region has become a world leader in seed production, and that canola threatens those valuable crops. 

“Oregon has developed a reputation for developing high-quality vegetable seed,” said Kenny Smith of the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association. “And like any reputation, once damaged it is nearly impossible to restore.” 

The Legislature first set limits on Willamette Valley canola in 1987. Over the next 30 years, lawmakers revisited the issue several times, setting the acreage limit for canola in 2013. Those restrictions were renewed in 2019, and are set to expire this July. 

Alice Morrison of the Salem-based nonprofit Friends of Family Farmers also testified about the importance of extending the ban. 

“Lifting the protections would devastate the valuable specialty seed industry. It’s time to make the protected districts permanent and give Oregon seed growers peace of mind,” said Morrison.

Monmouth farmer Garth Mulkey said in written testimony that introducing a new crop could destroy the industry seed farmers have built over the past three decades in the valley. 

“We build our business based on future projections, like all business people. A big reason we farm the way we do is because we count on our high-value specialty seeds being protected from contamination from a low-value oilseed crop,” wrote Mulkey.

Several supporters mentioned a report released last month by the Portland-based company Highland Economics, which found that the value of other brassica seed crops was much higher per acre than canola, and that canola cross-pollination was a significant danger to the market value of those other brassica crops. The report was commissioned by two groups, the Organic Seed Alliance based in Port Townsend, Washington, and Oregon Organic Coalition.

But Kathy Hadley, a canola farmer and agricultural economist from Rickreall, accused Highland Economics of misquoting her in the report and said it presented misleading information, including on genetically engineered canola and crop prices. 

“I was incredibly disappointed with its inaccuracies and omissions,” said Hadley. “The biggest thing I learned as an economist is that you can make any study say anything you want, depending on what you include, and this was obviously predetermined, commissioned by the organics that oppose canola.” 

State Rep. Anna Scharf, R-Amity, who grows canola on her family’s farm near Perrydale, echoed concerns about the report and voiced her doubts about the intention of the bill.

“Senate Bill 789 is not about agricultural coexistence, but it is about agricultural control by a few specialty seed companies,” said Scharf. “It is wrong.”

“It is not plausible for all farmers in the Willamette Valley to grow vegetable seed or organic vegetables – the markets simply are not there,” Scharf said later in an email to the Capital Chronicle. “If everyone did, the markets for those products would be flooded and prices would drop. On the flip side, it is not fair for one operation to exclude everyone for miles around from growing what works best for their operation. It is simply market manipulation by legislation.”

The committee will continue to accept written testimony through Friday, March 10. Like all bills in the Legislature this session, Senate Bill 789 will have to be scheduled for a committee vote by March 17.

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Ian Rose
Ian Rose

Ian Rose is a freelance science and nature writer based in Corvallis, Oregon. His work has recently appeared in Scientific American, Hakai Magazine and Civil Eats, centering on climate change and environmental issues in the American West.

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