Protect the Willamette Valley’s Specialty Seed Industry! 

2/26/24 – HB 4059-A HAS BEEN ASSIGNED TO THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES AND WILDFIRE. There is a public hearing on 2/27 at 8am and written testimony is due 2/29 at 8am. TEMPLATE BELOW!

2/22/24 – HB 4059-A HAS BEEN ADOPTED. The -9 Amendment has been adopted. The bill is now called HB 4059-A (the A stands for amended).

2/14/24 – HB 4059-9 PASSED OUT OF HOUSE COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE, LAND USE, NATURAL RESOURCES, AND WATER.

What is the issue?

Every farmer in the world starts with the seed to make their crop possible. Most farmers don’t save their own seeds. It is a specialized process that requires knowledge about cross-pollination, disease pressure, the ability to leave plants in the ground far beyond a normal succession and it is a specialized industry in itself. In the Willamette Valley we have been incredibly lucky that our topography, climate and growing season have been amenable to seed production for fruit and vegetables (known as “Specialty Crops” to the USDA) and we have a thriving specialty seed industry here. What makes the Willamette Valley (and the “green corridor” going north to BC, Canada) even more unique is that we are one of the last places in the world where specialty brassica seed can be grown. 
 
Seed farming is a lucrative opportunity for low acreage farmers to make a guaranteed income in a small space. With the price of land skyrocketing year after year, the need to find ways to be more viable on small plots is at the top of our farmers’ minds. For example, when we visited Sow Organic Seed in Junction City in September of 2023, Farmer Osana shared with us that a contract for 200 bed feet of cherry tomatoes was due to pay close to $2,000. That is one of many contracts they take on their operation and it can add up quickly. According to the economic assessment conducted by Highland Economics about the impact of canola production on brassica seed canola crops can only expect $190 per acre profit, while specialty seed farming can net an average of $3,200 per acre for conventionally grown varieties and an average of $40,000 per acre for organically grown varieties. 
 
The problem is that there are some brassicas more able to cross-contaminate seed than others. Canola, also known as rapeseed, is one of those brassicas. According to research conducted by Dr. Jim Myers at OSU and others, Canola is predominantly of the species that cross most readily with others. There is also substantial evidence from elsewhere around the globe that Canola cross contamination is pernicious, hard to eradicate and detrimental to specialty seed industries. Canola is also one of the most common GMO crops in the world and once GMO genetic material is present in seed stock (called adventitious presence in the industry) that seed can never be certified organic and therefore loses the contract and premium payment for the farmers.
 

Why does FoFF care?

FoFF has been a part of this issue for a long time. Over a decade ago, when the Willamette Valley Protected District was opened up to limited Canola (500 acres planted annually). Since then there have been studies and task forces and they agree that Canola and especially GE canola should be limited in the Willamette Valley Protected District in order to protect our ability to grow seeds in this region. You can read more in the 2014 GE task force report. Once canola has gotten into the ditches and out of the control of the farmers that plant it, or if it is not fully harvested and carries over into another planting as a weeds, it will become increasingly hard to prevent cross contamination. We are particularly concerned about canola as a crop (and not other brassicas in the valley) because it is a little bit unique in this plant family.
 

Why is Canola being singled out?

Canola is grown for oilseed, not for seed for planting. This means that the risk is largely one way. If some of the genetic material in the canola seed is contaminated from cross-pollination that doesn’t matter because it will never be grown out in the next generation, it will be crushed for oil. This means that canola farmers have an advantage when it comes to risk mitigation over the specialty seed farmers who need their seed to grow true to form. 
 
Canola is also only economically viable in large tracts. Specialty seeds are usually grow on relatively small acreages but commodity crops like canola are grown in hundreds, if not thousands of acres at a time. As a canola farmer noted in the workgroup in 2023 “5,000 acres does nothing for us” meaning that it is not a viable solution for them to grow canola under the capped system.
 
Canola is also the most likely of any brassica seed to be genetically engineered, or GMO. This puts an additional layer of risk around its cultivation for certified producers in the area. Specialty seed production often happens on small plots and the farmers who do it tend to have less land to move their planned plots around if there is a neighbor who wants to plant something that risks cross-contamination.

All these factors combined mean that we need to limit and regulate canola in the Willamette Valley Protected District.

What is going on in the 2024 session?

Last year, during the 2023 legislative session we were part of a coalition proposing to make the WVPD protections permanent. Due to the political dynamics of the 2023 session, the proposal was changed at the last minute to extend the sunset for 1 year and call a workgroup together. The workgroup met from July of 2023 all the way up to January of 2024 and it was a heated conversation. It became very clear from this process that both sides were going to have to compromise and that the common ground was hard to find. Legislators heard the report from ODA about the workgroup, held additional meetings and drafted what they hope will be a solution for the foreseeable future. 
 
We are grateful for the discussion and care legislators have shown to this topic. That being said, FoFF would like to be clear that our first choice was always maintaining the restrictions on canola that limited it to 500 acres total in the WVPD. We view the needs of specialty seed growers, who have been building viable, small farm businesses in the valley for decades as valuable and worth protecting, and that means limiting canola. The proposal before us represents a steep compromise, but one that shows a lot of promise and greater protections than the status quo in other valuable ways. FoFF is committed to remaining at the table and acting as a good partner through rulemaking and monitoring the situation into the future to ensure these protections are sufficient.
 

HB 4059-A

The -9 Amendment has been adopted. The bill is now called HB 4059-A (the A stands for amended).

On the morning of 2/15/24 a new amendment was posted that extends the sunset of the current regulations (500 acre canola cap, permits through ODA) until January 2, 2028. This amendment was adopted by the committee and will be the version of the bill that moves on through the process. FoFF has been committed to supporting the strongest protections for seed farmers available throughout the process while always pushing for improvement and emphasizing where we will need to be strong in implementation to avoid future problems. The -9 extends the current protections and is more supportive of seed farmers than any alternative we discussed to date. The -9 amendment was adopted by the committee on 2/15 and was passed out of the House on 2/22. It is now assigned to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire with a hearing at 8am on 2/27.

FoFF is strongly supportive of the HB 4059-A amendment. But this is a nuanced conversation and it is important that we still have some blind spots in current law that will need to be fixed in the future. This issue is 100% going to come back to the legislature and we will be ready to make future solutions work for seed farmers as we near the January 2028 sunset.

Things we like about -9:

  • Current protections stand. We would like these to be permanent, but we are happy to come back in a future session once better alternatives can be drafted to continue this conversation.

Things we are concerned about:

  • We retain the flaws of the current system:
    • Isolation distances not specified in law
    • Pinning is voluntary for all non-canola brassica seed growers. Though it is administered by WVSSA to industry standards and with seed viability in mind, it is not mandatory
    • No limitations or restrictions on GE brassica growing in the next 3 seasons.

Second Chamber Hearing

  • 2/27 8 AM in the Senate Natural Resource Committee
  • WRITTEN TESTIMONY IS DUE BY 8AM ON THURSDAY 2/29

This is our chance to speak up in favor of the sunset extension. There are people in the opposition still pushing to amend the bill to a version that FoFF and our farmers will not support and we need to assure legislators that this extension is the best option available for seed farmers right now. We will need to continue to work on this in the future, but we cannot let their delay tactics muddy this process and let the sunset elapse in July!

Submit testimony here – https://olis.oregonlegislature.gov/liz/2024R1/Testimony/SNR/HB/4059/0000-00-00-00-00?area=Measures

Testimony Template:

Written

Chair Golden, Vice Chair Girod and members of the committee:

My name is [name] and I am writing in support of HB 4059-A. I am a [farmer/community member/food advocate/seed saver] in [town]. The Willamette Valley Specialty Brassica seed industry is vital to the agricultural landscape of Oregon and we are so lucky to have the land, expertise and conditions to support this unique industry. We should protect these farmers’ ability to grow the seeds that produce millions of pounds of food across the world. 

Because a reasonable agreement could not be reached after the work group process, extending the current regulations is the only viable option. This topic means so much to me because:

[Elaborate on your personal experience here. Consider choosing some questions from this list to shape your testimony:

  • How does seed growing support your farm? How long have you been doing it, and any relevant details you’d like to share about the viability of your seed business.
  • What do locally grown seeds do for the farmers of Oregon?
  • Why is seed security/sovereignty/diversity so important?
  • How does more diversified agriculture benefit the valley as opposed to monocropping commodities like Canola?]

We know that HB 4059-A is not the end of the road and we will have to find a more permanent solution in the next few years. I urge legislators to listen to the specialty seed growers in this process. Just because they are not the biggest, most industrialized farms does not mean that they have any less value in the system. Please respect their knowledge of the plant biology, industry standards and best practices that have made this a thriving industry here in our state. In particular, we need future policy to address [add any concerns you want to make sure are specifically addressed in future legislation. This could include:

  • The need for a public pinning map
  • Seed lot testing for commonly crops 
  • Isolation distances 
  • Limitations on crop varieties that threaten organic production
  • Accountability and shared risk for all parties, not just small seed growers]

 

Thank you,

[name]

[farm name]

[town]

 

Watch a farmer’s perspective – Hank Keogh at Avoca Seeds in Corvallis. 

 

Important study about the potential economic impacts of lifting the canola ban:

The Willamette Valley is one of the vegetable seed capitals of the world, a very special place for growing high-value seeds, and an economic powerhouse for our state. Currently, cultivation of rapeseed/canola, a low-value oilseed that can irreversibly undermine the vegetable seed industry through cross-contamination and increased pest and disease pressure, is capped at 500 acres in the Willamette Valley Protected District. 
 
Dozens of seed companies work with hundreds of farmers to produce high quality seed in the region. Because plants in the Brassica family can easily cross with each other (think broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc) a complex system of isolation distances, mapping, and coordinated management have been created to ensure that the seed you buy from Willamette Valley growers is true to type – ie red cabbage is red cabbage, savoy cabbage is savoy cabbage, purple top turnip is purple top turnip etc. Because canola (raised and crushed for oil) is also in the Brassica family but is not typically managed the same as high quality seed, there have been restrictions on canola in the Willamette Valley for years. 
 
An important study quantifying the major risk to seed farmers in the Willamette Valley was released in February 2023. The study measures the impact of dismantling the Willamette Valley Protected District on the valley’s vibrant specialty vegetable seed sector. 
 
Conducted by the non-partisan firm Highland Economics, key findings in the study include: 
  • Brassica seed production, the seed most at risk from rapeseed/canola, produces average profits of $1400 per acre for conventional, and $32,000 per acre for organically grown seed. In contrast, rapeseed/canola produces profits of only $190 per acre.
  • If, as is likely, rapeseed/canola were to eliminate brassica seed growing (setting aside the impacts to seed producers’ investments and other crops) a loss of approximately $15M in production value, and $9.2M in direct and indirect labor income, would ensue. These figures do not include additional substantial losses from the Valley-based seed processing companies. 
  • Other oilseed crops such as flax, sunflower, safflower, yellow mustard and camelina do not threaten specialty seed crops to the degree that canola does, and can be grown in the protected districts.