Oregon farmers’ markets focus on core functions in pandemic

Farmers’ markets are known to cultivate a festive atmosphere that attracts crowds, which is exactly what people are supposed to avoid during the coronavirus outbreak.

At their core, however, such markets are about food distribution, which is why they’re exempt from Oregon’s prohibition on gatherings of more than 25 people.

Now that they must emphasize only food — not fun — Oregon farmers’ markets are preparing to strip their operations down to the essentials during the spring season.

“The social fabric we’ve been weaving for years, we’re rapidly unraveling,” said Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Market Association.

At least for the time being, live music is out, as are chairs, tables, kids’ activities and anything else that would encourage people to congregate, she said.

Vendors will space their booths farther apart, lots of hand-washing stations will be provided and signs will advise visitors to maintain social distance, Crane said.

A couple of Oregon farmers’ markets have even decided against opening as planned this spring, since they didn’t have enough physical space available to spread out their vendors, she said.

Apart from providing an opportunity to buy food in the open air, the state’s farmers’ markets are critical for the 6,700 small businesses that sell about $63 million worth of goods at them each year, Crane said.

Markets that maintain operations year-round have already seen a decline in attendance, but their sales haven’t dropped as sharply, she said. That’s because shoppers are still showing up individually, without their friends and families.

“People are really supportive,” Crane said. “They want these institutions to be around after the pandemic.”

Many local farmers and ranchers will be especially dependent on farmers’ markets this year, as their wholesale restaurant customers have largely been shut down indefinitely, said Trudy Toliver, executive director of the Portland Farmers Market, which is among the largest in the state.

“Direct-to-consumer sales is what will keep them going in this crisis,” Toliver said.

Community support will be especially important for such companies as artisan cheese producers, which can’t easily scale down or suspend their operations, she said. “They still have to feed their animals and milk their animals.”

Grocery stores in Brookings, Ore., have restrictions on the number of certain items people can buy, so residents see the importance of maintaining local sources of food, said Linda Stimson, market manager of the Brookings Harbor Farmers Market.

“If you stop local farms from producing, it’s hard to get them started again,” she said. “You can’t stop egg production or stop stuff from growing, but you can let it go to waste, which is crazy.”

Farm products sold at the market go directly from the grower to the consumer, which contributes to safety, Stimson said. “It’s not like it’s gone through multi-levels of hands.”

The coastal farmers’ market operates year-round and doesn’t attract as many people as big city markets, but visitors are still self-regulating despite the lack of known coronavirus cases in Curry County, Stimson said.

“People come and get their food and leave,” she said. “As far as festivities, I think that’s the last thing on people’s minds.”

Court grants temporary stay in organic lawsuit

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has granted USDA’s motion to stay summary judgment proceedings in a lawsuit against the agency over its withdrawal of a new organic livestock rule.

USDA asked the court to grant a stay and a voluntary remand of the rule to correct a series of admitted flaws in the cost-and-benefit analysis in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, according to court records.

Federal District Judge Rosemary Collyer granted the motion but set a deadline of 180 days for USDA to publish a final rule explaining its updated analysis to ensure timely action.

“This lawsuit represents the administrative process at its never-ending worst,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

She pointed out that USDA issued the final rule after 10 years of work, delayed implementation three times and then withdrew the rule.

The organic rule, finalized in the last days of the Obama administration in January 2017, included new standards for raising, transporting and slaughtering organic animals.

It was set to go into effect in March 2017, but implementation was delayed by an executive order from President Trump staying all pending regulations. USDA delayed implementation again in May and November of that year and withdrew the rule in March 2018.

At that time, USDA stated the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and could have a negative effect on voluntary participation in the National Organic Program.

The Organic Trade Association challenged the delays in court in September 2017, amending its complaint twice and challenging USDA’s withdrawal of the rule.

OTA filed a motion for summary judgment in October 2019 and, after two extensions, USDA was expected to file an opposition when it suddenly asked for remand, according to court documents.

OTA’s challenges to the withdrawal of the rule involve USDA’s conclusion the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and that the withdrawal rule contained errors in its economic analysis.

OTA urged the court to deny USDA’s motion for a stay and remand and address the fundamental issue of USDA’s authority.

“The court is sympathetic to OTA but rules (and cases) are best decided on a completed record,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

Any interim decision would be negated by USDA’s action in amending its reasoning, or action by USDA could render the issues moot, she said.

OTA said in a statement it welcomes the court-ordered deadline because of USDA’s willingness to drag out the rulemaking process and thwart the will of the organic industry.

The organization said it is confident the rule will be reinstated.

“At the end of the day and despite this delay, we are more confident than ever that our arguments will prevail and that the will of the industry will be served,” OTA stated.

Lawsuit aims to forbid organic certification of hydroponics

A lawsuit against the USDA is seeking to forbid organic certification of hydroponic operations, arguing only soil-grown crops can legally qualify as organic.

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group, claims that cultivating plants hydroponically in nutrient solution violates the requirement to “foster soil fertility” of the Organic Foods Production Act, a 1990 statute that governs organic farming.

“That goes against a basic organic principle, and those principles are encoded in law,” said Sylvia Wu, attorney for the Center for Food Safety as well as several other farms and organizations suing the USDA.

Controversies over hydroponic production have been percolating in the organic community for years, but the plaintiffs decided to file a complaint after the USDA rejected their 2019 petition to exclude such operations from organic certification, she said.

Hydroponic crops are grown without soil. Instead, nutrients are mixed with water and go directly to the plants’ roots.

At this point, consumers at grocery stores don’t know whether they’re buying produce from an organic farmer who’s working to improve the soil, Wu said. “That organic tomato could very well be grown in a warehouse in Mexico.”

A spokesperson for the USDA said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

In denying the petition, the agency said that “a categorical prohibition to hydroponic production is not justified by the OFPA.”

Provisions in the law referring to improving soil quality or crop rotation only apply to farms that rely on soil but don’t require that “all organic production occur in a soil-based environment,” the USDA said.

Though resources are cycled and conserved differently in hydroponic operations, that doesn’t render them “incompatible with the vision for organic agriculture” in the statute, the USDA said.

“Hydroponic operations produce food in a way that can minimize damage to soil and water, and that can support diverse biological communities,” the agency said.

Organic hydroponic growers are disappointed in the lawsuit and believe its accusations reflect a lack of understanding of their production methods, said Lee Frankel, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents such operations.

Hydroponic greenhouses still rely on microbes to break down nutrients into forms that are available to plants and rely on composting green waste, similarly to other farming operations, he said.

Hydroponic systems also greatly reduce the demand for irrigation water while producing crops efficiently, which reduces their environmental footprint, Frankel said.

The OFPA and associated regulations are intended to provide farmers with flexibility, so not every practice mentioned in the statute is required, he said.

“I don’t think the USDA is about prescribing a one-size-fits-all,” Frankel said. “Every grower has their site-specific conditions that dictate how they grow.”

The complaint is motivated by a desire to limit supplies of organic fresh tomatoes grown in greenhouses, which have come to dominate the market, he said. “The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit stated they don’t like that competition and feel like the prices need to be higher.”

The debate over hydroponics in organic farming stretches back more than two decades, with the National Organic Standards Board — which advises USDA — repeatedly reversing itself about whether the practice should be allowed.

Most recently, however, the NOSB voted in favor of continuing to allow organic certification of hydroponic operations in 2017.

The Center for Food Safety considers this decision an “anomaly,” as the broader industry narrative demonstrates the organic community’s resistance to the method, said Wu, the group’s attorney.

“It reflects the difference between corporate organic and family organic farmers.”

The NOSB’s 2017 recommendation won’t likely harm the lawsuit’s chances, as the statute is clear that improving soils is mandatory for organic farms, she said.

“Some requirements are discretionary, but not the soil fertility requirement,” Wu said.

New WSU pollinator center to address bee health

OTHELLO, Wash. — Two years ago, the Hiatt Honey Co. in Ephrata, Wash., lost roughly 10,000 hives to diseases and pests.

That’s about 53% of its hives, co-owner Chris Hiatt said.

It was the worst loss since 2004, when the company lost 8,000 to 9,000 hives, Hiatt said.

“This past year was only 33%, so that’s great,” Hiatt told the Capital Press. “Isn’t that crazy for me to say only? The national average was 40% last year. Everyone just expects to lose 30 to 40% through the whole year (to) mites, virus, pesticide pressure.”

Hiatt was one of the speakers during the March 6 ribbon cutting of Washington State University’s new Honey Bee and Pollinator research, extension and education facility. It is designed to help protect and improve pollinator health.

The university purchased the Othello, Wash., building, formerly owned by Monsanto and used for research and corn growing operations, for $2.5 million in June 2019.

No bees were yet at the center during the March 6 ceremony. They were in California pollinating almonds and will be moved to Yakima to pollinate cherries this week, said Brandon Hopkins, entomology assistant research professor.

The university has roughly 100 colonies, each with 40,000 bees. The center will eventually run 400 to 500 colonies, Hopkins said.

The new facility will scientifically seek solutions such as mite treatments or virus controls, any of which would be helpful, Hiatt said.

About six top universities for bee research, including WSU, are working to find answers for the hive losses, he said.

“Honeybees are the single most important pollinator contributing to a healthy global food supply,” said Andre-Denis Wright, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. “Bees are threatened by a host of challenges, and they need our help.”

Honeybees are “key to the existence of agriculture and, I guess you could argue, to the existence of humans on this planet,”  U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said.

Hiatt said it’s hard to measure how quickly the center’s effects will be felt in the industry.

The facility will allow researchers to collaborate with seed producers and other farmers, Hopkins said.

For example, WSU pollinator ecology professor Steve Sheppard is leading an experiment in which mushroom extracts are being tested as a way to help bees combat viruses.

Hiatt said bringing the extracts to market would be huge.

“It’s urgent, it’s super-urgent,” he said. “Honey price is down, (the price of) pollination is up, but these high losses just make it harder to stay in business.”

Network of small farmers voices support for cap and trade in Oregon

SALEM — As Oregon lawmakers clash over a controversial bill to curb the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, Mimi Casteel says climate change is already posing a major identity crisis for winegrowers.

Casteel grew up on her family’s vineyard in the Willamette Valley, home of internationally recognized Pinot noir. She remembers harvest usually happened around October, with the area’s relatively mild weather allowing more time for grapes to ripen and add layers of distinctive berry-like flavors.

Over the years, Casteel said that climatic window has begun to shift. Summers are becoming hotter and drier, forcing growers to pick grapes earlier in the season when sugars — and thus alcohol content — are higher but flavors have not yet come into balance.

In short, Oregon Pinot noir might no longer taste like Oregon Pinot noir.

“We just established ourselves a world-class wine region,” Casteel said. “We’re looking at a hard reality where that is not what we have anymore.”

In 2008, Casteel started her own vineyard, Hope Well Wine, in the Eola-Amity Hills west of Salem. She is one of more than 270 small farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who signed on in support of Senate Bill 1530 — Oregon’s cap and trade proposal — through the Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network, or OrCAN.

The bill is now stalled in the Legislature as both House and Senate Republicans staged boycotts of the short session this week, demanding that cap and trade go to the voters.

OrCAN Director Megan Kemple rejected that notion, saying the bill is comprehensive with extensive input from all sides.

“No bill has had this much work and this much public process,” Kemple said. “The Legislature is where policy like this should be made.”

Opponents of the bill, including the Oregon Farm Bureau and Timber Unity, a grassroots group of farmers and loggers whose members have staged large rallies outside the Capitol, argue that SB 1530 will raise fuel and energy prices, crippling agricultural producers who cannot pass the increased costs along to consumers.

A statewide cap-and-trade system would also have a negligible impact on climate change, critics add. Oregon generated just 0.13% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.

But Casteel said the bill contains a number of compromises intended to protect rural communities and trade-exposed businesses, and is a necessary step toward protecting natural resources.

“This would facilitate the transition toward climate-smart farming,” she said. “The smartest, most responsible thing we can do right now is throw our full and honest support behind farmers who can protect this region.”

Under cap and trade, the state sets a hard cap on greenhouse gas emissions and charges companies for allowances to exceed the limit. The cap gradually lowers over time, which is meant to encourage the companies to adopt more climate-friendly practices and technology.

Money collected would go into a state Climate Investment Fund with specific allocation levels for adaptation projects, including 25% for wildfire mitigation and 25% for natural and working lands to adopt measures such as tree planting, cover crops, no-till farming, riparian buffers and capturing dairy gas to create renewable energy.

Casteel, who built Hope Well Wine on 80 acres of reclaimed property, said these practices will ultimately determine whether Oregon is able to maintain its ecological resilience.

“It’s really farming where we make our greatest impact,” Casteel said. “We are on the front lines (of climate change).”

Other farmers who support cap and trade say the costs of doing nothing now are much higher than the cost of waiting until climate change creates irreparable harm.

In the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, Taylor Starr, executive director and farm manager at the nonprofit White Oak Farm and Education Center, said the last 10 years have seen increasing wildfires and lower snowpack in the Siskiyou Mountains, creating a lack of water flows later in the season.

Two years ago, Starr said the farm had its irrigation water shut off in early July, about a month earlier than usual. White Oak Farm grows and sells a variety of produce and contracts with several seed companies. The center also receives grants and contributions to support its programs.

“We’ve really had to adjust our scheduling,” Starr said. “When things are so uncertain, it makes that planning really challenging.”

Starr estimates the farm has invested about $10,000 to upgrade its irrigation systems, installing more efficient drip lines and resurrecting an old 1940s-era water storage pond. He said the farm is also shifted toward planting more deep-rooted perennial plants that can better withstand drought, versus shallow-rooted annuals.

Wildfire smoke is another serious issue, Starr said, choking skies and impacting customer turnout at local farmers’ markets. He said the farm has experienced a 10% drop in market revenue during smoky summers, which adds up to thousands of dollars of lost revenue.

“It is stressful,” he said. “It just feels like we’re in this ecosystem here that’s a little bit on edge.”

Sarah Deumling, forest manager for Zena Forest Products in Salem, said the company owns one of the largest intact remaining forests in the Willamette Valley, though climate change is beginning to change the makeup of species in the woods.

Deumling said drought has led to a 10-20% loss of Douglas fir trees that had to be removed and replanted with white oak and cedar.

“I’m not the only one who has firs dying,” Duemling said. “Some people have cedars dying that wouldn’t normally be dying. … If you put that out on a trajectory, the costs can be huge.”

Deumling admits she is is not certain whether cap and trade is the best solution for managing Oregon’s greenhouse gases, but she said producers can no longer afford to wait years for someone to do something about it.

“We’re trying to make a living. It’s not easy,” she said. “We better do all we can to prepare for and get a handle on climate change.”