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Oregon lawmakers extend limits on canola production in the Willamette Valley

With time nearly running out during its short 2024 session, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill Thursday continuing a 500-acre cap on canola farming in the Willamette Valley until Jan. 2, 2028, further extending an already decades-long, at points fierce, debate. The legislation now heads to Gov. Tina Kotek’s desk to be signed into law.

Grass seed farmers, some of whom use canola as a rotation crop, say they need to grow canola to supplement their incomes, while specialty seed farmers say its presence could damage their yields.

At issue is the crops’ ability to cross-pollinate with some similar plant varieties. That’s because canola belongs to the Brassica family, which is part of a larger family of plants such as kale, broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens and turnips.

Supporters of the bill passed Thursday say much of the canola grown for its seed oil is genetically engineered, and extending its presence could damage the genetic purity of seeds grown by smaller specialty seed farmers, especially organic certified producers who sell to markets in countries that ban genetically modified seeds. They also say the Willamette Valley is one of a few places in the world with the right conditions to grow Brassica vegetable seeds, and allowing more canola would unnecessarily put an entire industry at risk.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture-provided photo of a canola field.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture-provided photo of a canola field.


During last year’s legislative session, a Senate bill, SB789, looked to make the 500-acre restriction permanent, although it did not pass. This time around, legislators sought a compromise through House Bill 4059, after lengthy discussions and input from a workgroup with farmers and other stakeholders.

One proposal, discussed in the House Agriculture Committee, would have expanded canola production to 2,500 acres — and after two years would have lifted the acreage cap entirely — and would have permanently limited genetically engineered canola to 500 acres. It would also have set buffer zones, or “isolation distances,” between canola and other Brassica crops, and directed the Oregon Department of Agriculture to set up a public tracking or “pinning” map to avoid conflicts.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said despite coming close to a compromise, the groups could not come to a consensus on genetically engineered canola. He said it would’ve been risky to move that proposal into the legislative floor, where it could have stalled and left canola unregulated since the current law keeping the 500-acre limit sunsets this summer.

“This was never going to be a kumbaya moment and some folks would have to give a little to get a little and back and forth and I wished we had gotten there,” Helm said during a February committee meeting. “I’m sorry we have to kick the can down the road.”

Instead, the committee voted to continue the 500-acre limit to give legislators more time to iron out their differences. They can revisit the issue during the 2025 legislative session, according to Helm.

HB 4059 passed the House and the Senate — with some minor changes — along nearly party lines, despite the push for more acres from canola proponents, including Rep. Anna Scharf, R-Amity, a member of the House agriculture committee, whose husband is a fourth-generation farmer who grows canola. Democrats largely voted to continue the current caps, while Republicans largely opposed the bill as written.

If lawmakers had not passed legislation this session, canola could be grown anywhere in the Willamette Valley once current limits expired.

Supporters say Brassicas can coexist in the Willamette Valley

Canola advocates, many of them grass seed farmers, point to a 2017 Oregon State University study that found that, under the right conditions and proper buffer zones, canola could coexist with other Brassica crops and it should not be treated any differently. Supporters of expanded canola include the Oregon Farming Bureau and the lobbying group Oregonians for Food and Shelter.

In a Senate Natural Resources Committee meeting, Scharf said she’d never heard of genetically engineered canola contamination complaints, even in 2020, when half of the 500 acres currently allowed in the valley were genetically engineered canola crops.

“House Bill 4059 and many of the other proposed amendments attempt to excessively restrict or cap GE canola. They’re exaggerated and they’re fear-mongering,” Scharf said. “To my knowledge, ODA has never received a single complaint that a specialty seed crop was infected with GE Brassica.”

An Oregon Department of Agriculture spokesperson confirmed to OPB the agency had not received any cross-pollination complaints.

Troy Hadley, a fifth-generation grass seed farmer, said farmers in the Willamette Valley need canola to supplement their incomes at a time when the grass seed industry is not as financially viable.

“This year was the absolute worst in three generations for grass seed production,” Hadley said. “We need a rotation crop, we need a crop to grow, there’s thousands of acres in this valley that can be pinned, we need to regulate canola, there’s no question.”

Groups will likely revisit canola discussion

Alice Morrison is co-director of policy and development for the Oregon nonprofit Friends of Family Farmers, which advocates on behalf of specialty seed farmers. She said that, while she’s relieved the Legislature agreed to extend the canola cap, there needs to be clarity around whether to allow genetically engineered canola in the Willamette Valley. She also said she would still like to see a cap on canola rather than no limits at all, like was proposed on one of the earlier versions of HB 4059.

“It was very nerve-wracking and not something that we were very excited about, for the acreage cap to go away completely. We were hoping for a more phased-in approach, or maintaining a larger but still-present acreage cap,” Morrison said.

Despite Thursday’s vote to extend the current canola acreage limit, farm groups and legislators say they will likely revisit canola regulations to find a more permanent solution sooner rather than later.


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