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Canola debate pits biofuels against seeds


New agriculture department rules could push compromise between farmers

by: MAUREEN ZOEBELEIN - Sprawling fields of canola offer more than just a majestic view. The crop is bringing growers a good profit and specialty seed farmers more worries. The humble canola plant is pitting farmer against farmer in Oregon.

“It’s often labeled as this bulletproof thing that doesn’t die, but it’s not that bad,” said Banks farmer Mike Vandehey, who grows canola along with other crops on hundreds of acres in Banks.

Nick Tichinin is not reassured. "We are worried about getting overrun,” said the Polk County owner of Universal Seed Co.

Relatively uncommon in Oregon — farmers planted just 6,500 acres of it in 2012, most of it in Eastern Oregon — canola is in high demand for both cooking oil and biofuel. It also helps break up pest and disease cycles when used as a rotation crop, one reason grass seed and grain farmers like it.

But neighboring farmers, especially those in the Willamette Valley’s $32 million specialty seed industry, worry that canola fields will cross-pollinate with their crops and spread pests and disease. Many crops grown specifically to produce pure seeds are in the brassica family, along with canola, making cross-pollination a looming threat.

“The Willamette Valley is one of the few places left in the world where specialty seeds can still be grown," said Leah Rodgers, field director for Friends of Family Farmers. "Other parts of the world have caused ruination to their specialty-seed industry” by not placing strict enough regulations on contaminating crops, she said.

In 2005, when interest in biofuel crops was growing, the Oregon Department of Agriculture established a million-acre rectangle in the Willamette Valley as a canola-prohibited zone, except for farmers who secured special permits. But last month, the department issued new policies to allow the expansion of canola production.

Now farmers throughout the Willamete Valley and Washington County have a profitable new crop option — and specialty seed farmers have another worry.

The new rules expand canola production in the Willamette Valley while protecting other crops through strict limits on canola's acreage and placement and growing schedule, as well as seed-testing, transportation rules and more (See box).

Traveling pollen

Oregon State University researcher Russ Karow conducted a three-year study of canola in the Willamette Valley, and found that canola pollen could travel up to three to five miles, potentially endangering the crops of specialty seed farmers in that realm.

Canola could also attract diseases and pests that could spread to related brassica crops like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and mustard.

Specialty seed farmers already have to be “very strict and careful” when it comes to managing their crops to prevent pests, disease and cross-pollination, Karow said.

“Canola is a crop designed to produce a large amount of biomass; it's very hard to control,” said Tichinin, who grows his own specialty seeds and has contracts with other farmers throughout the region, and is concerned about the effects of canola next to his fields. Biomas is organic material grown to convert into fuel.

John McCulley of the Oregon Clover Seed Commission said his customers are concerned about purity. “We've had indications from buyers who may discontinue to buy from the state,” he said, if canola is allowed in the Willamette Valley.

The fields of western Oregon south of Portland have been ideal for specialty seed producers for decades, with their rich soils, wet and mild winters, dry summers, and minimal exposure to contaminating seeds.

The fields also offer ideal growing conditions for canola.

Vandehey, who served on the Canola Advisory Committee that led discussions with the ODA before they drafted the new rules, has grown 200 to 300 acres of non-GMO canola in Banks, which falls just outside the protected Willamette Valley rectangle.

When clover seed prices were low and he couldn’t plant wheat another consecutive year, Vandehey planted canola after much research.

“We needed an alternative,” Vandehey said. “I didn’t raise it until I was confident in what I was getting into.”

Chemicals 'pretty standard'

Although Vandehey’s fields aren’t near as many specialty seed farms as in some other parts of the state, he hasn’t experienced any trouble with some of the common complaints about the crop.

“We’ve hand-pulled less than 20 canola plants from the ditch in the last three years,” he said.

And the chemicals Vandehey uses to control canola are “pretty standard,” he said.

But he does take the potential problems canola could pose to other farmers seriously. “It’s just morally the right thing to do” to reduce the potential for spreading.

Kathy Freeborn-Hadley, who works on her family farm just west of Salem, planted non-genetically modified canola in 2008 and 2009 as part of Karow's study.

“Both years we grew it, we netted more on canola than our other crops,” Freeborn-Hadley said.

After planting winter canola, her family followed the crop with a grass species or grains. “We have had no problems whatsoever” with volunteer canola or cross-pollination, she said.

Canola is an appealing option for Freeborn-Hadley’s family, which has limited irrigation.

Freeborn-Hadley worked hard to prevent the unwanted spread of canola. During harvesting, trucks were covered, equipment was cleaned in the fields with an air compressor, and the ground was lightly tilled to disrupt any seeds that might sprout.

“These are a lot of the same things we are doing with our other crops, though,” she explains. “It's pretty standard when you're trying not to mix crops.”

While canola can be grown in other parts of the state where specialty seed farmers aren't as common, high fuel costs don't make transporting canola long distances economical, said Tomas Endicott of Willamette Biomass Processors. The biofuels plant opened in Polk County in 2008, providing Freeborn-Hadley’s family and Vandehey a local buyer. The plant could still handle about 20 percent more canola, Endicott said.

He hopes to get that supply from growers in the Willamette Valley.

New rules

Under new rules proposed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, canola growers must enter into a Rapeseed Protected District Contract with ODA, which will include detailed descriptions of grower responsibilities — such as testing seed for blackleg before planting and strict transportation rules — before they can grow canola in the Willamette Valley protected zone.

n The ODA will only allow 2,500 acres of canola to be grown in the Willamette Valley Protected District per year and canola fields must be three miles away from neighboring specialty seed crops. Farmers cannot grow canola two years in a row and cannot grow it more than two in every five years.

n It can be grown in the protected district if it is not allowed to flower. Canola growers must also use the Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association pinning system, which marks fields to ensure appropriate isolation distances between crops, helping seeds stay true to type.

n Producers are responsible for the removal of any inadvertent spread of seed or volunteer canola.

n For complete details on new canola rulings and guidelines for growing canola in other parts of the state, visit www.oregon.gov/ODA/Pages/canola.aspx.