The Oregon Legislature is racing towards its July 10 end date with a flurry of activity. Lawmakers have not yet determined how to fill major budget shortfalls, which has meant proposed cuts to programs like Farm-to-School.
The Legislature is planning to meet through much of the July 4 weekend, and at this point in the session things can literally change by the hour.
In the midst of this, a few key issues remain on the table. We hope you will take a few minutes to contact your State Legislators at this key time:
HB 2038 – Oregon’s Farm to School Program. This bill had an important hearing in the Ways and Means Education Subcommittee on June 21, and the committee voted to advance it on June 30. While the vote signals a final Farm to School funding bill will pass before the session ends, amendments made in committee would provide only $2.5 million for the program for 2017-19, a little more than half of what was funded during the previous two years. While this would amount to a significant cut to the program, other amendments intended to prevent spending of state dollars on foods that are already federally required to be included in school meals should help spread out whatever funding is available to a wider diversity of Oregon grown and processed products.
Friends of Family Farmers supports fully funding Farm to School with $5.6 million for 2017-19. Things can change quickly in the final days of the Legislature and additional funding could still be added back in.
HB 2739 – GE Patent-holder liability. This bill would protect farmers who have experienced financial losses due to contamination from genetically engineered (GE) crops. It would allow farmers to be compensated by GE crop patent-holders when their products have crossed property lines and caused financial damage. It had a public hearing in the House Rules committee on May 23 but has since stalled out due to pressure from groups closely aligned with the biotech industry like Oregonians for Food and Shelter and the Farm Bureau. Recently, Malheur County farmer Jerry Erstrom called these groups out in the Capital Press for their exaggerations about the bill and unwillingness to take action to protect farmers from multi-national companies that typically own GE patents.
With time running out on the session, the bill is still in play – please call and email your State Legislators today and over the weekend in support of HB 2739 and for holding GE patent-holders accountable when they cause farmers financial harm.
Tax Credits – Beginning farmers or manure digesters? In a session full of budget cuts, tough choices are being made about what kind of tax credits will be available. Tax credits are a way of using public dollars to encourage certain activities. Sometimes they encourage good things, sometimes they don’t.
We came into the 2017 session advocating for HB 2085, a bill to establish a new beginning farmer tax credit in Oregon. This bill would encourage landowners to lease or rent land to beginning farmers and ranchers to help address access to land challenges that many beginning farmers face. Similar tax credit programs exist in Iowa and Nebraska and recently Minnesota created its own beginning farmer tax credit. Unfortunately, it appears this concept is dead for the year, a victim of Oregon’s budget shortfall.
Separately, in part due to the state’s precarious funding situation, we have strongly argued for repealing, and against extending, the controversial manure digester tax credit. This tax credit has cost the state millions in recent years and primarily benefits Oregon’s largest factory-scale dairy operation, Threemile Canyon Farms. Currently, no cap on spending for this tax credit exists and it was extended last year until the end of 2021 with little serious debate. The 70,000-cow Threemile Canyon Farms – a huge corporate operation with out-of-state owners – and their allies at the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Dairy Farmers Association recently testified in support of allocating an astonishing $10 million for this tax credit over the next two years. This would establish a cap for the tax credit at more than double the size of it’s current use, with the potential for further transferring tax dollars to huge operations like Threemile at a time when programs that benefit family farmers face cuts. Earlier in the session, these groups fought against and helped kill a proposal (SB 197) to require mega-dairies like Threemile Canyon Farms and the recently approved 30,000-cow Lost Valley Farms to address their air pollution problems.
At this point, the fate of a bill that would have extended the manure digester tax credit until 2024 is unclear, as are various amendments ranging from those to cap costs at or below current levels, to those that would allow the program to grow substantially. Friends of Family Farmers believes the manure digester tax credit, which was originally intended to expire at the end of 2017, should be eliminated until Oregon puts in place a comprehensive air quality program that addresses pollution problems from the state’s largest concentrated animal feeding operations. Any future manure-related tax credits should be used to assist producers that raise animals responsibly on pasture.
HB 3249 – Agricultural Heritage Program set up – This bill establishes a program that could be used in future years to fund grants for conservation management planning, working lands easements and farm succession trainings in Oregon. The bill passed through the Ways and Means Natural Resources Subcommittee on June 28, signaling its likely passage before the session ends. The bill provides $190,000 for establishing an ‘Agricultural Heritage Commission’ and creating rules to help oversee a grant program. It does not appear to fund any grants in the 2017-19 biennium.
We have had mixed feelings about this bill since the session began. It emerged from a ‘work group’ selected by the Governor in 2016 that includes organizations that have opposed similar farm conservation funding proposals in the past, as well as land trust groups that we have worked with before.
On the one hand, we generally support the types of grants HB 3249 talks about and we advocated for their creation back in the 2015 legislative session. On the other hand, we oppose the creation of the ‘Agricultural Heritage Commission’ the bill also sets up. This commission, a new permanent entity that will likely end up costing the state money whether grants are being issued or not, may have been a compromise aimed at securing support from groups who have opposed similar farmland conservation efforts in the past. These groups appear to be suspicious of allowing the grant program to be managed by Oregon’s Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), even though OWEB has provided grants for salmon and watershed protection on farms and ranches for years.
In our view, the new Commission is a costly and extraneous layer of bureaucracy that, just to maintain itself, could end up siphoning money away from future funding that may become available for grants. Further, the makeup of the Commission will have a major influence on grant funding priorities, which makes us concerned that it may not address key issues that many who have supported this bill believe are important, including helping new and beginning farmers with access to affordable land.
We would have preferred this new program to be established as a pilot project while making grant funding available immediately. Instead, it puts off grant funding for future years while the Commission is named and sorts outs its priorities.
Nonetheless, the bill is likely to pass in its current form. Once it passes, it will be necessary to keep an eye on how the Commission members are named, what priorities they set for funding, and how grant funds are ultimately spent if or when they become available.