2015 Oregon Legislative Wrap Up: Wins, Losses and Draws

Friends of Family Farmers fought hard for family-scale farmers in the 2015 legislative session on bills ranging from agri-tourism to GE crops to urban agricultural zones. On the evening of July 6, the 2015 Oregon Legislative session finally adjourned. In the end, the roller-coaster session marked by the high-profile resignation of a recently elected Governor resulted in a mixed bag of wins, losses and draws for family farms in Oregon. Here’s a rundown of the major issues Friends of Family Farmers worked on this session and how our priorities fared:

Wins:

Our efforts to support beginning farmers, OSU Extension and Agricultural Experiment Stations, Oregon’s Farm-to-School program and agri-tourism providers all went well this session. Friends of Family Farmers supported the following legislation and funding priorities that were enacted this year:

  • Aggie Bonds: HB 3239 improves access to Oregon’s beginning and expanding farmer loan program (aka Aggie Bonds) by expanding the types of lending under the program to include beginning farmer loans issued by NW Farm Credit Services as well as seller-financed loans. Additionally, through HB 5005, the Legislature authorized up to $10 million in state bonding authority to support dozens of lower-interest rate beginning farmer loans under the program over the next two years. FoFF led the effort to pass this bill.
  • Agri-tourism: SB 341 provides new legal protections for farms engaged in ‘agri-tourism’ including u-pick, corn-mazes, hay rides, farm stays and more. Under SB 341, as long as a farmer posts required signs and aren’t negligent, they are protected from liability if members of the public who visit their farm are injured due to the inherent risks of the farm, including uneven or muddy ground and the presence of animals. FoFF was a leading group in a coalition working to pass this bill.
  • Farm-to-School: Oregon’s Farm-to-School program received a large boost in funding for the next two years, rising from $1.2 million to $4.5 million. The program was also expanded to cover school meal programs statewide, going beyond the competitive grant system that made the program available to a smaller number of schools in previous years. A large coalition of Farm-to-School advocates supported the funding increases and changes to the program and FoFF testified in support during legislative hearings and met with Legislative leaders throughout the session to help ensure a positive outcome.
  • OSU Extension: Through SB 129, Oregon State University’s Extension and Agricultural Experiment Stations received $14 million in new funding, which will allow the University to hire new positions to support farmers statewide. Programs to be funded include beginning farmer support, pollinator health, sustainable grazing management, fermentation sciences and more. FoFF worked with a diverse coalition in support of this effort.

Losses:

Our work to support farmers concerned about lax state and federal oversight of genetically engineered crops, encourage increased use of ‘working lands easements’ to keep farmland at risk of development in farm ownership, and curtail overuse of antibiotics on large factory-scale farms lost out this session as the Legislature failed to act on these. Friends of Family Farmers worked in support of the following proactive legislation that received significant debate, but ultimately failed to pass:

Much of the canola grown in the US is genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides
Much of the canola grown in the US is genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides, a trait which threatens Oregon specialty seed and organic markets.
  • GE Crops: At the outset of the session, there seemed to be good odds for the passage of at least one of the introduced bills that would create state level safeguards and regulation of genetically engineered crops. In particular, after a one-year task force on genetically engineered agriculture, Governor Kitzhaber introduced a bill to allow the Oregon Department of Agriculture to use its existing ‘control area’ authority to keep genetically engineered crops away from non-genetically engineered crops at risk of cross-contamination. But almost immediately, the Governor’s office began backpedaling in response to pressure from groups representing out-of-state biotechnology interests. Once Governor Kitzhaber resigned, Governor Brown’s office walked away from the issue completely. Despite FoFF’s efforts to revive a ‘control area’ bill, the issue died without action.
  • Farm Antibiotics Reform: On the topic of farm antibiotics reform, FoFF supported House and Senate legislation that would have prohibited the feeding of antibiotics to healthy farm farm animals for growth promotion and in daily low doses for disease prevention. These practices have been tied to the growing presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in our food supply. Most farmers in Oregon either don’t use antibiotics, or are using antibiotics in appropriate ways when needed to treat sick animals, and these bills would have allowed farmers to use antibiotics when needed. They also would have required annual reporting on antibiotic use by the 100-150 largest Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in Oregon where antibiotic overuse is most likely to be taking place. While one of the bills (SB 920) passed a key Senate committee, it ultimately died without action.
  • Working Lands Easements: One of Governor Kitzhaber’s initiatives supported by FoFF, SB 204, would have used $30 million in bonding to fund new state loan, loan guarantee, and grant programs to protect working lands at risk of development and to encourage good conservation practices on farmland in Oregon. This would have provided funding for activities that protect working farms in Oregon, including through the use of working lands conservation easements. Such easements can be a way to help farmers plan for transitions in ownership to maintain their farms and protect the land from development threats, often while improving conservation values. Like a number of Governor Kitzhaber’s initiatives, this effort fell to the wayside and even a scaled down version focused on using conservation easements and other strategies for riparian restoration on farms in Oregon failed to pass the Legislature

Draws:

Specialty seed producers and urban farmers were among those who had a mixed bag of results this session with some setbacks and some progress made. FoFF worked on the following bills we are putting in the ‘draw’ category:

Urban farms can provide a good income on a small acreage while boosting food security, providing pollinator habitat, and creating greenspaces.
Urban farms can provide a good income on a small acreage while boosting food security, providing pollinator habitat, and creating greenspaces.
  • Urban Agriculture: Early in the session, there seemed to be great support for HB 2723, a bill to allow local communities to establish ‘urban agriculture incentive zones’ where lower property tax rates could be offered for small-scale urban farms. The bill passed the House and a key Senate committee, but ultimately stalled in the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee in the Legislature’s final days and died upon adjournment. While this bill didn’t pass, the strong showing of support in the Legislature for encouraging urban agriculture suggests future legislation may be in the mix.
  • Canola in the Willamette Valley: The passage of HB 3382 marked at set-back on the issue of canola in the Willamette Valley, a major concern for the specialty seed industry, organic producers and fresh market vegetable growers due to issues of crop-contamination. Under this bill, the Legislature approved 500 acres of canola per year between 2016 and 2019, a period previously subject to a ‘no-canola’ moratorium. However, the bill also requires more comprehensive research on the harmful impacts of canola to the specialty seed industry and for the Oregon Department of Agriculture to present recommendations on rules or laws need to protect the specialty seed industry from canola in the future. This means the issue will continue to be something the Legislature or Oregon Department of Agriculture will have to address in the future, or risk putting significant industries in harm’s way if canola is allowed to be grown without any restrictions after 2019.
  • Manure Digester tax subsidies: A major tax credit for manure digesters was the topic of HB 2449, a bill initially supported by FoFF because it reduced tax subsidies for manure digesters by roughly 80%. Such digesters are most often located on larger-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and in Oregon, the biggest recipient of this tax credit is the state’s largest dairy CAFO, Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, which has received millions in subsidies to date. As currently structured, the tax credit also provides a taxpayer-funded incentive for new factory-scale CAFOs to set up in Oregon as long as they build a manure digester. At one point, the bill was amended to revert to higher subsidy levels, which prompted FoFF to oppose it, and amendments under discussion could have led to a nearly $20 million windfall for Threemile Canyon Farms over the next several years. Ultimately, the bill died, and while the existing tax credit will remain lucrative and continue to use up scarce tax dollars better spent elsewhere, it will expire in two years unless the Legislature acts to renew it in 2016 or 2017.

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