A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Seed versus seed in the valley

Written September 10th, 2013 by
Farmers Matt Crawford, left, and Frank Morton listen to Rep. Sara Gelser speaking to the Corvallis City Club Sept. 9

Farmers Matt Crawford, left, and Frank Morton listen to Rep. Sara Gelser speaking to the Corvallis City Club Sept. 9

A struggle for survival is taking place in the Willamette Valley’s farm economy. Either grass seed or specialty vegetable seeds may not survive. That’s the impression I got from a discussion at the Corvallis City Club on Monday.

Grass seed growers, no longer allowed to burn their fields every few years, need an economical rotation crop as grass varieties are becoming resistant to chemical weed control. They have found it in canola, the oil of which can be processed as fuel.

But canola is in the same genus, brassica, as vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, grown for seed in the valley. Even the possibility of cross fertilization of these specialty crops would make the seed unsalable on the world market. So the fields are isolated and widely separated. Canola on nearby grass seeds fields every few years would wipe those specialty seed growers out.

The 2013 legislature passed an amended bill originally sponsored by Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis. The bill bans canola from the Willamette Valley through 2019 but authorizes Oregon State University to do research on a few experimental fields. The specialty seed people will cooperate with the study even though they don’t believe it will find a solution.

At the city club meeting, I listened to Gelser and growers Matt Crawford of the Canola camp and Frank Morton of the specialty seed group. I came away persuaded by the farmers that canola as a rotation crop and the specialty seed industry cannot coexist. Unless OSU researchers come up with a miracle in five years, Oregon lawmakers will have to decide in favor of one or the other.

Grass seed growers probably would not want to go back to field burning even if they could. But chances are this conflict over cross pollination would not have come up if burning had not been virtually banned. (hh)

From Jana Seeliger, Corvallis:  My husband and I were talking about and trouble-shooting the specialty seed crop versus canola questions. I also attended the discussion earlier this week. I had one thought: the specialty seed growers have been an ongoing and I think growing part of the marketplace for some decades. Also, the small organic farmers have been coming along for many years. As time goes by, it seems reasonable to project that the growth in organic farming as a sector of agriculture in this country and in the valley will continue? So that the economic gains will increase in a gradual and predictable manner (steady growth)? I think that is reliable, and desirable in the face of climate change and population dynamics in our area.

My husband had the thought to inquire what the benefit of other cover crops that didn’t include the economic gain of canola but serve well to control weeds and pests for the grass seed farmers would bring? The last several years have been a challenge for the seed farmers with the steep reduction in grass seed purchases. I understand that the seed farmers need a better control than more chemicals to control their weed problems, but the economic gains projected for canola must be pushing this forward a great deal, too. However, if the growth in specialty seeds and organic farming methods continue to increase and another though less cash-[producing] cover crop were available, I think the grass seed farmers would at least solve their pest problems, and perhaps gain some fertility in their soil:

I like the idea of diversifying our economic base including the variety of agriculture in the valley. I want to support the specialty seed growers and organic farmers for long term economic and social stability. I want the grass seed farmers to survive, and possibly benefit from greater diversification of crops over time. (The valley didn’t always grow so much grass seed, did it?)

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HH Today: A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley
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