Oregon Legislature to revisit debate around canola growing in the Willamette Valley

By Alejandro Figueroa (OPB)
Feb. 3, 2024 12:11 a.m.

Farm groups have been at odds with each other for years over whether to allow canola farming in the Willamette Valley. Now, Oregon lawmakers will decide whether to allow more canola farming in the valley this upcoming legislative session.

Some groups of farmers say canola can cross-pollinate with similar plants like mustards or cabbage, which could damage yields for specialty seed growers.

Some groups of farmers say canola can cross-pollinate with similar plants like mustards or cabbage, which could damage yields for specialty seed growers.

Russ Gesch / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Oregon farm groups and lawmakers will look to put a decades-long debate to rest this upcoming legislative session.

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Right now, canola farming is limited to 500 acres in a protected district that stretches from Multnomah to Lane County. Last year, a Senate bill, SB789, looked to make the restriction permanent, although it did not pass.

In the upcoming legislative session, which begins Monday, legislators will decide whether to allow more canola farming within the Willamette Valley beyond the current restrictions.

Under a draft proposal, which would be introduced in the Oregon House Committee on Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources, and Water, canola farming could be extended to 2,500 acres for the 2025 harvest season. After that, the limit would be lifted. Opponents say that could irreversibly damage a specialty seed crop industry that brings in an average of $15 million in revenue per year.

Canola, which is mainly grown for its seed to produce cooking oil and livestock feed, is a Brassica crop — part of a large family of plants that includes vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens, radish and kale.

Groups against expanding canola argue that, because they share the same plant family, growing canola near other Brassicas can bring problems of cross pollination, disease and pests, which can damage yields for specialty Brassica seed growers. That’s because some canola varieties are genetically engineered, which some farmers worry could alter the purity of other Brassica seeds like cabbage or mustards.

On the other hand, farmers proposing the expansion of canola say the crop comes with several benefits.

Canola and other Brassica species can coexist, one farmer says

Kathy Hadley from Polk County is part of a small group of farmers that grow canola in the valley. She’s also a member of the Willamette Valley Oilseed Producers Association. She said canola can be a profitable rotational crop for grass seed farmers and it can also improve soil health and manage weeds.

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She points to a 2017 Oregon State University study that found canola and other Brassica plant species could coexist in the valley so long as the crops are properly distanced.

“There is definitely a massive need within the grass seed industry now for rotation,” Hadley said “So I think it would be advantageous if we can figure out a way that canola wouldn’t be limited or singled out.”

Under the current draft proposal, farmers must apply for a permit with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to grow canola. They also would have to plant it at least three miles away from any vulnerable Brassica crops and six miles away if the canola they are using is genetically engineered — a practice canola farmers have already been doing. The proposal also directs the department of agriculture to set up a public pinning map that tracks where a farmer is growing Brassicas to avoid any conflicts.

Related: Oregon considers permanent restrictions on canola farming in the Willamette Valley

Concerns around risks of genetically engineered canola

Amy Wong, the executive director of the Oregon Organic Coalition, said she would like the commission to really consider the risks of canola, especially its genetically engineered varieties.

“This is about risk management. It’s not saying GE [genetically engineered] is bad,” Wong said. “It’s saying GE just poses an exceptional risk to this industry that’s worth a lot of money. And that feeds the world Brassica vegetables.”

Ideally, some farmers would prefer to keep a cap on non-GMO canola rather than to allow it to be grown all across the valley and to also institute a ban on genetically engineered varieties, said Kenny Smith, a specialty crop farmer and president of the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association.

“The Willamette Valley is special and we need to protect that,” Smith said. “I just worry about getting one incident of GE contamination in a food crop, and then our reputation is completely ruined.”

For now, despite the disagreements, Smith said he appreciates how far canola farmers have come to recognize there needs to be barriers and safeguards between crops.

Hadley said she believes that, with a combination of crop distances and a tracking system, both groups could coexist and put a years-long argument to rest.

“There’s a lot of people that just haven’t wanted to be involved in the controversy,” Hadley said. “They [farmers] know the need for a crop rotation but they just haven’t wanted to get involved.”

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