Plant used for oil, biofuel, can mar crops in vicinity

by: PHOTO BY MAUREEN ZOEBELEIN - Canola fields bloom near Banks, a community north of Forest Grove where agriculture officials allow the controversial crop to be planted. The humble canola plant is pitting farmer against farmer in Oregon.

One side argues the crop could destroy its livelihood. The other argues it can be controlled like any other crop with proper management, and farmers have a right to grow it.

Grass seed and grain farmers like canola because it’s an in-demand cash crop suitable for cooking oil and biofuel that’s been bringing high prices the last few years. Plus it's a good crop to rotate in during winter, after other crops are harvested.

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. There's also no tracking whether the canola is genetically modified, and organic farmers fear contamination from neighboring fields. 

Most of the Willamette Valley is off-limits to canola growing, though the Oregon Department of Agriculture has been seeking to ease those restrictions.

Both sides are awaiting new department rules that could expand areas where farmers may grow canola, after the department's temporary rule was successfully blocked in court. After months of discussion, a department team is reviewing public comments and considering feedback from its Canola Advisory Committee. The state agency hopes to release a new draft version of its canola planting rule on Dec. 15.

“We hope to have a rule adopted in time for growers to make their spring planting decisions,” says Bruce Pokarney, agriculture department spokesman.

Crops like canola, a dicot, break up the pest and disease cycles of monocots like grasses and grains.

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 about five miles, potentially endangering the crops of specialty seed farmers nearby. It could also attract diseases and pests that could spread to related brassica crops, which include cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and mustard.

Seed farmers worry

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 says. “They are worried those growing canola won't be as careful.”

“Canola is a crop designed to produce a large amount of biomass; it's very hard to control,” says Nick Tichinin of Polk County’s Universal Seed Co.

Tichinin grows his own specialty seeds and has contracts with other farmers throughout the region. He is concerned about the effects of canola next to his fields. “I don't think the two will safely coexist,” he says. “We are worried about getting overrun.”

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

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

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.

In 2005, when interest in crops for biofuel production was growing, the Oregon Department of Agriculture established a rectangle encompassing millions of acres in the Willamette Valley as a canola-prohibited zone, except for farmers who secured special permits. The department has the authority to establish control areas for the general protection of Oregon horticulture, agriculture and forestry against disease, pests and noxious weeds.

The Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association maintains maps where fields are marked and recorded to ensure appropriate isolation distances between crops, ensuring seeds are true to type.

Court intervenes

In August, the agriculture department released a temporary rule that would have expanded the canola production area in the Willamette Valley by nearly 1.7 million acres. But the rule was heavily opposed by specialty seed farmers and eventually stopped by the Oregon Court of Appeals.

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, and was planning on planting this fall before the court blocked the agriculture department rule.

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

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 says.

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

“I am definitely in favor of being able to grow canola with certain parameters,” she says. “We need to protect the specialty seed industries, but there is also a lot of room for canola production where it hasn't been allowed historically.”

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.”

Now the agriculture department is left with three main options: Leave the current rule in place; retract all rules and let canola and specialty seed farmers work out a compromise on their own; or modify the boundaries to enable some canola production for oil in limited areas, with strict containment rules.

Possible solutions include allowing canola to be grown in the foothills, which might help protect the valley floor, and putting a cap on the acreage of canola production. 

Because there’s no recognized difference between genetically modified and non-genetically modified canola on the federal level, the state can't pose restrictions on genetically modified canola.

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, says Tomas Endicott of Willamette Biomass Processors. The biofuels plant opened in Polk County in 2008, providing Freeborn-Hadley’s family a local buyer. The plant could handle about 20 percent more canola, and hopes to get that supply from growers in the valley.

The agriculture department may be able to come up with a solution to satisfy both sides by next year. Meanwhile, those pushing for canola in the valley will have to wait at least another season.

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