How Canola Grown In The Willamette Valley Would Affect Farmers Market Vendors
Written By Kyle Curtis
You probably don’t think of canola all that much, if at all. Perhaps there is a bottle of canola oil in your pantry that you use to cook with. This oil, after all, is heart-healthy and good for you—well, that is according to the canola industry’s website. Indeed, that canola oil bottle sits there overlooked and perhaps little-used. Is there any reason why you should give canola a second thought? Yes, there is—but perhaps for reasons you were unaware. There is a reason why canola—particularly Oregon-grown canola—is important, especially for those who are avid shoppers at farmers markets.
Canola is a very versatile plant, with the ability to adapt and grow in nearly every environment. Besides filling bottles of cooking oil, when crushed, canola seeds create an efficient source of energy, making it a key component of Oregon’s burgeoning green energy and biomass industry. Canola farmers also receive a government subsidy of five cents per pound, helping incentivize the bulk growing of the crop and making canola one of the state’s commodity crops, resulting in a $2.5 million industry.
As a commodity crop, no farmers market vendors offer bottles of canola oil—nor will they. So, what’s the big deal about canola then, especially in regards to farmers markets? Due to its hardiness—and the fact that it is a member of the brassica family which also includes broccoli, cabbage, and turnips—canola can cross-pollinate with these specialty crops and, if cultivated in the Willamette Valley canola could threaten the viability of the valley’s small farmers, growers, and seed producers.
The Science Hasn’t Changed
For the past few years there have been “protected zones” prohibiting the cultivation of canola in the Willamette Valley. Although a major crop grown in the eastern part of the state, a study by Oregon State determined in 2009 that due to canola’s pervasiveness over a million acres of valley farmland should be kept off-limits to canola. But the boundaries of these “protected zones” were set to expire at the end of 2012, and in August the state Department of Agriculture proposed an emergency rule change that would allow portions of former “protected zones” in the Willamette Valley to be opened for canola cultivation.
What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this proposed rule change is that it is not based on any new scientific research or finding. “The science hasn’t changed,” says Leah Rogers, the Field Director for Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF), an organization that advocates for Oregon’s small and family farms. “The ODA funded the original study that created the protected zone. Now, with the same science, you’re going to take away the protected zone?” Indeed, by its own admission, the ODA has recognized that the science that originally argued for a “protected zone” to keep canola out of the Willamette Valley hasn’t changed. The ODA was unwilling to provide a response regarding canola control areas, due to current legal action. However, the agency did provide a link to a FAQon their website about the
canola control area. A question included in this FAQ is “What has changed?” and the response provided begins with “Not much.”
Reading further into the FAQ it becomes clear the ODA is proposing this rule change to satisfy the conflicting interests of specialty crop and seed farmers that want to keep the valley off limits to canola and the interests of grass farmers who have identified canola as a preferable rotational crop to help break diseases and pests in their fields. “There are some farmers that want canola as a rotation crop,” Rogers says. “Currently they don’t have a lot of options, except for semolina and flax.” Canola grown in the Willamette Valley could easier accommodate the biomass industry opposed to trucking it in from eastern Oregon.
No difference between GMO and non-GMO canola.
However, one drawback is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deregulated canola, meaning that there is no distinction between conventional canola—grown with GMOs—and organic, GMO-free canola. “In the eyes of the law, canola is canola,” Rogers says. “And most canola is grown with support from chemical agriculture, which means it is controlled with chemicals, and that certainly does not follow organic procedures.” As canola pollinates easily through wind, insects, run-off from rain and other water, and even blowing off of trucks, it easily establishes itself as a “roadside weed” that grows and consumes the large acreage it needs very quickly. The ODA hopes that by using only properly sealed packages on certain highways the spread of ‘wild canola” will be mitigated. But clearly, very little canola would need to be introduced before growing rapidly throughout the valley.
The fact that allowing canola to be grown in the Willamette Valley threatens the valley’s specialty crops and seed growers isn’t lost on the ODA. “Ironically,” Rogers says, “the ODA has said that if too much canola is grown, it will upset the natural balance of that region.” On its FAQ, the ODA states that crops in the brassica should be isolated from each other and that pests and diseases would be a concern if large acreage of canola are planted. However, as the ODA puts it, “what constitutes large acreage that could trigger pest and disease outbreaks is not easily identifiable.” And, as Rogers points out, “Canola seed stays in the soil for seven to ten years.” In other words, once it’s in the dirt, canola is sticking around for a while.
The ODA argues that farmers have the right to decide what to grow on their land, unless there is imminent threat of disease, pests, or other menace. An argument based on the principles of “freedom” might appeal to certain ethics and characteristics of Oregon’s individualistic nature that has been formed by taming the wilderness to create one of the world’s most envied agriculture industries. But consider this: Oregon’s specialty crops represent a $40 million industry, while the state’s canola industry amounts to a paltry $2.5 million in comparison. “This rule change made by the ODA ends up pitting farmer versus farmers,” Rogers says. “Sure, farmers should have the freedom to grow whatever they want wherever they want—but what happens when it encroaches on another farmer’s freedom? It’s kind of like how people have the freedom to swing their fists, but that freedom ends the moment that fist hits my face.”