Protect Oregon’s Specialty Seed Industry!


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 happened in the 2024 session?

HB 4059 began as a reform package for the rules surrounding the Willamette Valley Protected District which puts rules on canola production in this sensitive brassica specialty seed growing region. FoFF represents many specialty seed growers who are very concerned about the possibilities of canola production cross contaminating with specialty seed crops, and cross pollinating with native weeds which increase the risk of cross-contamination over time. FoFF worked with legislators and other advocates in good faith to find a solution that protected seed growers and addressed some of canola’s concerns and supported an initial compromise solution. When it became clear that the canola growers were pushing for further concessions there were lines that we could not cross without endangering the future of specialty seed production in the WVPD. Because of the tight timeline of the short session, there was not time for the negotiations to continue and lawmakers reverted to extending the current rules (500 acre cap on canola in the valley, no other changes or protections) until January 2028. We are looking forward to continuing this conversation and will keep coming to the table as long as it takes to find a solution to preserve the specialty brassica seed industry.


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.