Canola Questions

Why do seed farmers fear canola in the valley?

I keep hearing the question, “Why are farmers so worried about canola?” For the last seven months I’ve studied the topic, spoken with diverse farmers, read books on seed-saving and vegetable development, and researched canola. Here’s what I’ve learned and what you should know before the Oregon Department of Agriculture holds its hearing in Salem on Jan. 23:

Growing high-quality seed is a LOT of work: With brassica seed (like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower) it is extremely difficult to keep the genetic quality pure. A gardener and seed-saver myself, I was really surprised by this fact. In his book, Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, Territorial Seeds founder Steve Solomon explains the extreme difficulties of growing brassica seed. For example, cabbage requires a minimum of 200 plants in order to save high-quality seed with varietal purity. Varietal purity is what keeps your cabbage displaying the characteristics of that specific cabbage, rather than devolving into a wilder, less palatable plant. Seed growers may plant twice the amount of needed cabbages, and then cull out less tasty, less uniform, less desirable plants. The remaining plants must be cared for until they bloom and develop seed — a huge investment in labor, water and space, aka, money. This is not a venture for your average home gardener or amateur seed-saver. Without this standard of care, we would no longer have the tasty plants that make much of our diets.

Seed purity is a very big deal to food growers: Commercial seed growers cannot settle for anything less than purity. “Satisfactory” results will seriously harm their business and reputation. Producers of high-quality vegetable seed, like those in the Willamette Valley, sell their product to a very important market — farmers who produce food for the public. Market food producers are called a “critical trade.” Their seed purchases have to be absolutely consistent and reliable. Each vegetable must bulk up at the proper time, produce uniform results, not flower prematurely, and, of course, taste great.

When a Brassica cross-pollinator like canola/rapeseed is planted nearby, en masse, a seed grower’s ability to keep seed purity is lost. This is why regions across the world that have canola/rapeseed production no longer have Brassica seed production. They are incompatible, as our Willamette Valley farmers were warned by seed growers around the world.

Canola is harmful whether it is genetically engineered (GE), or not: Cross-pollination and seed contamination issues come with both GE canola and traditional canola. International seed buyers, as well as organic seed buyers, cannot use seed that contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but the problem is bigger than cross-pollination. Contamination also occurs when canola seed is accidentally mixed into other seed, such as when “volunteer” canola plants are unintentionally harvested with the intended crop. This is a problem not only for brassica growers, but also beet seed, grass seed, clover and wheat growers — uniting an unprecedented group of farmers, conventional and organic, against canola.

Canola contamination will have widespread effects on economic and food security: Talking to many seed farmers this fall, I was surprised to learn how lucrative and how complicated it is to grow good vegetable seed. I discovered that vegetable seed production is a significant part of Oregon’s economy and provides some of the highest paid, living-wage jobs in agriculture. Unlike canola production (which requires only minimal amounts of low-paid labor), vegetable seed production requires highly skilled, and consequently, well-paid workers. It’s a farming venture that can be established on small acreage as farms go, and produces one of the highest rates of profit per acre in agriculture.

This means that new generations of vegetable seed farmers have a real chance to develop a profitable farm, hire employees at fair wages, support the local economy and their families. Viable family farming is an astounding rarity in agriculture today. We are in an era when farms are disappearing and farmers are “graying” out.  According to the USDA, the average age of a farmer in 2007 was 58 years old.1 That figure is expected to rise in this current census. This trend is not sustainable.

During OSU’s investigation into the viability and risks of establishing canola production in the Willamette Valley, seed producers from around the world expressed their concerns and experiences with this very issue. Here are examples from two seed producers who grow and buy much of their seed here in the Willamette Valley:

In a 2009 letter, the Japanese Seed Trade Association (JASTA) expressed its concern about canola to the Oregon Department of Agriculture(ODA). JASTA president Denichi Takii explained the seriousness of the situation.

Japanese seed companies are the largest importer of Oregon grown seeds both in quantity and in dollar value … If the current restriction is lifted, canola will be planted in the vegetable seed producing areas in the Willamette Valley … This means that all the surrounding fields within two mile radius cannot be used for seed production of Brassica vegetable species because of the potential seed and pollen contamination from the canola crop … Oregon has been chosen by JASTA member companies as a place for their Brassica seed production for so many years[30], as Oregon provides ideal condition … For this reason, canola-free zoning is extremely important to us and we fully support the position of Willamette Valley Specialty Seed Association (WVSSA) … If it [canola-free zoning] is not maintained, we will be compelled to withdraw our business out of Oregon.

In a 2009 letter to the ODA, Limagrain’s Forage Crops Seed Production Manager, Peter Garland, explained their standpoint and concern. Limagrain is the UK’s leading plant breeder and seed producer, and because of canola production in the UK, Limagrain grows Brassica vegetable seed here in the Willamette Valley.

It has to be said that one of the world’s major production zones for specialty Brassica vegetable seeds, just happens to be the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Along with areas in Washington, and New Zealand, it is one of the most important vegetable Brassica seed production zones in the world … Oregon and Washington production are vital to world vegetable seed production, and in the process, make a worthwhile contribution to the local economy, and US export values. It seems crazy to put this at risk for the short term politically inspired idea of creating bio-fuels from food crops.

Both of these statements clearly illustrate the gravity of the situation in Oregon. The ODA is poised to allow canola/rapeseed to be grown in the seed-producing regions of the Willamette Valley. We are at a crossroads. One way continues us down the budding path of local economic and food security. The other choice will end the hard-won gains farmers and food/farm organizations have cultivated for generations. If you value these contributions, if you want to support our local economy and farmers, or if you eat food, please make your voice heard at the upcoming ODA hearing on January 23, at the Salem Fairgrounds. To read more about issue with canola or for directions to the hearing, please visit — Kim Goodwin

1 USDA Briefing on the Status of Rural America

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