January 29, 2015
Well, it’s that time again. Every other year, the Oregon Legislature meets from February to July to hold hearings, pass laws, and create the state’s budget. And since 2011, Friends of Family Farmers has had a strong presence at the State Capitol, keeping you up to date on what’s happening and how you can make a difference for family farmers and strong local food systems with our ‘Muckboots in the Capitol’ blog.
The halls of the State Capitol are full of well-heeled lobbyists, but much like a barn, the Capitol needs some farmers in muck boots to help shovel out the manure from time to time to help keep things on track.
Once the 2015 Legislative Session formally begins on February 2, we are planning to post a regular ‘shovel’ full of updates from the Legislature’s proceedings right here, both the good and the bad. So plan to check back here frequently for the latest information and follow our twitter page for even more rapid fire commentary on the Legislature’s day to day activities.
FoFF’s Legislative Priorities – 2015
So far, we’ve counted nearly 100 bills either directly relating to, or having an impact on, agriculture and food in the Oregon Legislature this year. Among these are a number of key bills and budget proposals we believe will help advance socially responsible agriculture and healthy local food systems in Oregon. In short, our 2015 legislative priorities are:
- Protecting the viability of Oregon’s farms and agricultural markets
- Supporting new marketing opportunities for Oregon farmers
- Supporting new and beginning farmers
- Reducing the harm from factory farms
- Increasing transparency in government decision-making that affects family farmers
1. Protecting the viability of Oregon’s farms and agricultural markets
State Level GE protections: Oregon farmers have faced huge issues with poorly managed genetically engineered (GE) crops in recent years, and the current state of federal and state oversight over GE crops presents the potential for serious economic risk, product contamination and financial harm for Oregon farmers, with little recourse when harm occurs. Many of our most important markets, both foreign and domestic, have strict requirements for non-GE products. Acknowledging a number of these issues, Governor Kitzhaber formed a Task Force on Genetically Engineered Agriculture in 2014, which FoFF and a number of others served on. Now, following on the heels of the final report of that task force, both the Governor and Legislators have introduced legislation that would strengthen state authority over GE crops to better protect Oregon’s significant non-GE markets. We will be working closely on theGovernor’s bill (SB 207) and other legislation, including HB 2674 and HB 2675, to ensure the strongest possible protections for Oregon’s important non-GE markets, aid Oregon farmers at risk of harm from poorly regulated GE crops, and to ensure stronger oversight over GE crops in Oregon most at risk of contaminating other crops.
Protecting Working Lands: The Governor has also proposed a substantial ‘working lands’ initiative that would establish new state loan, loan guarantee and grant programs intended to help protect working farmland at risk of development, and to encourage good conservation practices on existing farms in Oregon. Through new tools like low-interest loans, state loan guarantees and grants for ‘working lands conservation easements,’ Oregon can help protect existing farmland, improve on conservation values found on farmland, and provide assistance in passing along working farms to a new generation of family farmers planning to work the land. We will be working closely on the Governor’s working lands bill (SB 204) to help create new tools for family farmers and ranchers to protect working farms and ranches across the state.
Increased funding for OSU Extension and Ag Research Programs: After experiencing cuts in recent years, key Extension and Ag Research programs around the state that benefit farmers and help conserve natural resources have suffered as staffing has been cut. Now, a wide coalition of agriculture and conservation groups are seeking significant increases in funding for Extension and agriculture research programs generally referred to as the ‘OSU Statewide Public Service Programs.’ Securing funding increases will help with important regional Extension priorities including small and beginning farmer support, pollinator health, food safety, water quality protection, and research needs on crop rotation, reducing pesticide use, and sustainable management techniques.
2. Supporting new marketing opportunities for Oregon farmers
Agritourism: Agritourism is a key opportunity to enhance economic value on farms in Oregon. But whenever a farm offers u-pick opportunities, farm-stays, or other public access onto their farm as part of their business plan, the farmer takes a risk of being sued if someone gets injured. Limiting the legal liability of farmers who engage in agritourism opportunities is a key way to help reduce the risk of being sued when inviting the public onto your property. SB 341 would establish blanket legal liability protections for agritourism providers as long as they post clear signs, and take other steps to reduce risks to the public when entering their farm.
3. Supporting new and beginning farmers
Enhancing and Funding Aggie Bonds: In 2013, the Oregon Legislature created Oregon’s Beginning and Expanding Farmer Loan Program, also known as Aggie Bonds, to provide lower interest lending to beginning and smaller farmers. In 2015, legislation (yet to be introduced) will expand the types of lenders who will be able to offer Aggie Bonds backed loans. The more lenders who participate in the program, the more beginning farmers are likely to benefit from the lower interest rates Aggie Bonds can offer. Additionally, because Aggie Bonds require state-backed bonds to be issued equivalent to the value of loans issued under the program, some $10 million in bonding authority will need to be authorized by the legislature for 2015-17 to support loans for the maximum amount for up to 10 beginning farmer borrowing the maximum amount (approximately $500,000) per year. Lastly, elements of the Governor’s Working Lands Initiative (mentioned above) are also intended to provide lower interest loans and loan guarantees which can be used by beginning and newer farmers and aid in farm succession from an older to a newer generation in Oregon. Combined, these efforts will both support the existing Aggie Bonds program and enhance opportunities for beginning farmers in Oregon.
4. Reducing the harm from factory farms
Preventing misuse of antibiotics on factory farms: The misuse of medically important antibiotics on healthy animals for growth promotion and disease prevention in factory farms is both a major public health issue and a problem for socially responsible farmers who need antibiotics to work when trying to heal genuinely sick animals. Major outbreaks of antibiotic resistant salmonella from Foster Farms chicken, which sickened hundreds across the country in 2014, is the most recent example of how the lack of transparency on antibiotic use, and misuse of medically important antibiotics, in factory farm settings is a growing problem. HB 2598 would bar the use of medically important antibiotics for non-medical purposes in food producing animals (with a focus on poultry, swine and cattle), and require extensive reporting on the use of antibiotics on factory farms in Oregon to better track how much and what types are being used in the largest concentrated animal feeding operations, where misuse of antibiotics is most likely.
5. Increasing transparency in government decision-making that affects family farmers
Board of Agriculture reform: Oregon’s Board of Agriculture is the advisory board to the Oregon Department of Agriculture and members are appointed by the Governor. But unlike other state agency oversight/advisory boards, the Governor’s appointees to the Board of Agriculture are not confirmed by the Oregon Senate, nor are its members subject to the Oregon Government ethics and conflict of interest provisions that other state Boards are required to adhere to. In recent years, it has not been clear what criteria are being used to select Board of Agriculture appointees, and without Senate confirmation, there is no way to ensure the public has meaningful input on who gets selected. HB 2595 would change this and also require that at least two of the 10 Board of Agriculture members be ‘direct market’ producers who primarily sell within Oregon to help ensure that this fast-growing sector of agriculture has guaranteed representation on the Board no matter who is Governor. The bill would also make clear that the two ‘public’ members on the Board have no financial conflicts of interest related to agriculture.
As the session proceeds, a number of other bills that fit into one or more of the above priority categories will likely emerge and require our attention, including efforts to maintain or increase funding for Oregon’s Farm to School program, bills to create or remove tax credits that impact farming, land use related bills, and more. Check in to the Muckboots in the Capitol blog for the latest information.