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.”


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.


Alleged marijuana damage to grapes ruled plausible

A federal judge has ruled that an Oregon vineyard has plausibly alleged harm from a neighboring marijuana operation and may proceed with a racketeering lawsuit against it.

U.S. Senior District Judge Anna Brown has denied the marijuana-growing neighbor’s motion to dismiss the complaint, finding that Momtazi Vineyard has legal standing under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act to pursue the case.

The vineyard has plausibly claimed under RICO that it’s suffered a “concrete financial loss” because a customer canceled an order over fears the grapes were contaminated with the smell of marijuana, the judge said.

“The customer’s concerns, whether valid or invalid, arose directly from the proximity of defendants’ marijuana-grow operation,” Brown wrote in the 20-page opinion.

The defendants — Mary and Steven Wagner, along with their son Richard — had argued that Momtazi’s allegations of lost grape sales, reduced grape marketability and reduced property rental income weren’t “concrete” damages caused by a RICO violation, but the judge rejected those claims.

The Momtazi family, which owns the vineyard in Yamhill County, filed the lawsuit earlier this year accusing the Wagners of running a “criminal enterprise” because marijuana is illegal under federal law. The complaint seeks compensation for “three times the damages” caused by this alleged “racketeering activity.”

Capital Press was unable to reach the plaintiff’s or defendants’ attorneys for comment as of press time.

Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed a similar lawsuit filed against another marijuana-growing operation near Lebanon, Ore., because the alleged drop in real estate values to neighboring landowners wasn’t considered a “compensable property injury” under RICO.

Damage claims must be more than “purely speculative” to proceed under RICO and allegations of diminished market value are considered insufficient, according to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over much of the West.

The Momtazi lawsuit’s survival of the motion to dismiss could mean it will become a “template” for other litigation against marijuana operations, said Alex Tinker, an attorney representing marijuana growers in another lawsuit.

“They’re looking for ways to create a replicable model,” Tinker said.

With alleged grape contamination now ruled a plausible injury under RICO, that may invite similar accusations involving other agricultural commodities, he said.

However, it will still be “a tough thing to prove causation,” Tinker said.

In Oregon, several cases against marijuana growers and retailers have been filed alleging RICO violations, with attorney Rachel McCart representing the plaintiffs.

Tinker said the cases are driven at least partly by an ideological opposition to marijuana that hasn’t proven successful in the legislature or with the public.

“These are part of a coordinated effort to fight the cannabis industry through the courts,” he said.


On-farm FDA inspections prove time-consuming in Oregon

Federal regulators appear to be taking longer to complete on-farm inspections in Oregon under the Food Safety Modernization Act than state inspectors elsewhere in the U.S.

Inspections conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Oregon require up to two days per fresh produce grower, while the time is typically shorter where that duty is delegated to state inspectors, said Susanna Pearlstein, produce safety program manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The time needed for inspections could be a significant impact for growers who must devote staff to the process who would otherwise be driving tractors or performing other duties, she said.

While Congress overhauled the nation’s food safety system with the passage of FSMA in 2011, routine inspections of farms didn’t begin until this year. Federal authorities spent several years enacting rules for the program.

The task of conducting on-farm inspections was delegated to state regulators in many cases, but the Oregon Department of Agriculture is focusing on outreach and education while leaving FSMA inspections to FDA employees.

“It’s big and it’s complicated and it’s new,” said Pearlstein. “We’re here if people have questions.”

An FDA inspector in Oregon referred questions to a representative at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., who did not respond to calls for comment.

During this first year of routine inspections, the FDA is targeting growers with more than $500,000 in annual sales of fresh produce, but next year the agency plans to inspect operations with revenues of $250,000 to $500,000.

From the observations of ODA staff, there seems to be an opportunity to provide growers with more information on such subjects as cross-contamination of equipment, Pearlstein said. “We’re seeing a lot of emphasis on educational materials that are essentially needed for operations.”

The ODA has a program to help farmers prepare for FDA inspections with on-farm readiness reviews. The agency has conducted about 50 this year, she said.

The agency plans to update its materials based on its observations of the FDA process, Pearlstein said. “We’re all learning together.”

The FDA’s inspection was “intensive,” “time consuming” and “disruptive,” though the agency does seem open to making practical adjustments, said a farmer whose operation was inspected this year and didn’t want to be named.

“The tone is, ‘Let’s try to work things out,’ rather than the ‘put the screws to you’ tone,” the farmer said.

Some of the inspector’s expectations — such as bundles of produce immediately being placed in boxes instead of first laying in windrows — are unrealistic, the farmer said.

With Oregon produce farmers competing with those in Mexico who pay much lower wages, they must take labor-saving steps, the farmer said. “We have to be very efficient in how we do things.”


Working off the farm

Working off the farm can have many upsides but the underlying motivation is usually simple: Making ends meet.

A reality of life in the countryside is that most agricultural operations often don’t generate enough steady revenue for a farmer to survive without holding another job.

“There are a lot of challenges that come with farming, and stability of income definitely is one of them,” said Angi Bailey, an Oregon nursery owner who also works for an agribusiness group. “There comes a point where you just can’t pay the bills.”

Of the 2 million primary producers in the U.S. — those in charge of major decisions and day-to-day management of the farm — more than 60% work at least part of the year for another employer, according to the USDA’s recently published 2017 Census of Agriculture.

About 63% of those growers devote more than 200 days a year to off-farm work, nearly full-time employment.

“It’s tough making a living just raising cows and making mortgage payments and putting kids through school,” said Matt McElligott, an Eastern Oregon rancher who also sells livestock feed across the Northwest.

Since feed dealerships are generally separated by long stretches of rural highway, McElligott is often traveling.

Though his wife and family help juggle the responsibilities, McElligott’s two jobs do clash on occasion, such as the time 100 calves got loose when he was four hours away from his home near North Powder, Ore.

Even when things are going smoothly, there’s seldom any downtime.

“It’s early mornings and late nights and taking vacation days working on the ranch,” McElligott said. “There’s sacrifices there, but that’s what I like to do, so for me it’s not a sacrifice.”

Young and old
Not surprisingly, off-farm work is most common among young farmers who’ve yet to find their financial footing: About 80% of principal producers under 35 hold other jobs.

At age 30, Dylan Wells qualifies as a young producer, but he’s no novice at farming. He’s been operating a miniature ornamental pumpkin business, Autumn Harvest, with his family for the past 15 years.

Changed circumstances in recent years — including marriage, his father’s chronic illness and new business regulations — have prompted Wells to branch out into doing home renovations and real estate.

Wells plans to stick with farming because he relishes the hustle and bustle of running the agricultural business, which is now based near Woodburn, Ore. However, he enjoys the variety of “flipping” homes, which also lets him work as his own boss.

“It’s something new every day, it’s not the same,” Wells said. “I love problem solving.”

Off-farm work isn’t solely the province of growers who are young, beginning or small-scale. Nearly one-third of producers with farms earning more than $1 million in annual revenues also work elsewhere, as do more than a third of those whose farms encompass 2,000 acres or more.

Apart from money, off-farm jobs can provide other forms of security, such as health insurance and retirement plans.

Outside experience
Some professionals who’ve devoted years to an outside career may also be reluctant to switch their focus entirely to agriculture, said Jon Paul Driver, an industry analyst with Northwest Farm Credit Services.

“They may not want to give up some of the work they’ve been doing. It brings a diversity back to agriculture as well,” he said. “There’s room for innovation for someone who’s worked in other sectors of the economy and can bring something back to the farm.”

While off-farm work is a familiar component of rural life, USDA’s statistics don’t indicate it has become more widespread. Between 2007 and 2017, the proportion of primary producers who work off-farm has actually decreased from nearly 65% to 58%.

The decline could be a facet of the rising age of U.S. primary farm producers, which crept up from 57.1 years to 59.4 years during that decade.

“Baby boomers are still a significant portion of producers, and that’s what’s driving your off-farm income discussion,” said Driver.

Some growers may have retired from their off-farm jobs while still working in agriculture, possibly driven by the particular economic fluctuations seen during that decade, he said.

The overall U.S. economy suffered a severe recession after 2007, followed by years of a lackluster employment picture, while commodity crop prices were often solid, Driver said.

“Off-farm opportunities were not as strong, which may have contributed to fewer off-farm jobs,” he said.

Despite this shift, off-farm income has remained vital to most U.S. farm operations, many of which earn negligible revenues or lose money.

Though the average net cash income per farm is $43,000, more than half of U.S. farms are unprofitable, with an average loss of $22,000.

Lifestyle matters
Lifestyle may account for part of the reason that growers are willing to work off-farm to subsidize their agricultural operations, though they’re probably motivated by more tangible reasons as well, said Carrie Litkowski, senior economist with USDA’s Economic Research Service.

The average value of agricultural land and buildings was $1.3 million per farm in 2017, up from $790,000 in 2007.

From the grower’s perspective, hanging onto increasingly valuable farmland may be worthwhile even if the operation is barely self-sustaining, said Litkowski.

“I may be breaking even, but I have this land as an asset,” she said. “They might even see that as a net gain.”

For Matt Brechwald, working as a police officer was necessary to support his livestock and hay operation near Kuna, Idaho, but the off-farm job ultimately felt too distracting.

“The things you need to be there for, a full-time job will keep you from being there for,” he said. “The con for me is I was living two different lives.”

To supplement his income, Brechwald started a side business in gopher control that eventually became successful enough for him to quit law enforcement.

As an entrepreneur, he could be flexible enough with his schedule to pivot to farm duties when necessary.


Christmas tree checkoff faces referendum again

The fate of a checkoff program that raises money to promote and research Christmas trees will again be put to a vote among farmers starting this month.

People who harvest or import more than 500 Christmas trees per year will cast their ballots on whether to continue funding the Christmas Tree Promotion Board from April 22 until May 17.

In a referendum held last year, farmers approved the checkoff by a margin of just 16 votes out of 800 cast, but the USDA — which oversees the program — decided to hold another vote in 2019.

About 1,200 farmers and importers currently pay 15 cents per tree to fund the checkoff, which raises about $1.8 million a year for promotions aimed at competing against fake trees, as well as research to solve production problems.

Controversy has dogged the checkoff before it began operating in 2015, with the program’s implementation stalled for several years due to allegations it amounted to a “Christmas tree tax.”

Supporters of the checkoff say that promotional spending is a worthwhile investment to prevent real trees from losing market share, while critics argue the money has not meaningfully increased sales for individual farmers.

“The real benefit comes from year after year of that message getting out,” said Betty Malone, an Oregon farmer who spearheaded the effort to begin the checkoff.

The initial referendum was held after the program had concluded three seasons of marketing campaigns, which largely focused on targeting consumers through social media.

The campaigns touted the value of real trees in forming lasting family memories, as well as their environmental benefits and importance to domestic farmers.

Money collected from farmers is also paying for research into reducing such pests as slugs and elongated hemlock scale, a destructive insect, among other problems facing the industry, Malone said.

“No one has got the money to sponsor the research that’s needed,” she said. “It’s these kinds of things that benefit the entire industry that the Christmas Tree Promotion Board should be doing.”

Malone said there’s a lack of clarity as to why USDA decided to hold another referendum so soon after the first, effectively punishing the program for a close victory.

“In a democracy, it shouldn’t matter if it was one vote or 100 votes,” she said.

Farmers Against Christmas Tree Taxation, a group that’s campaigning against the checkoff, is optimistic that a majority of farmers will vote against the program in 2019, said Frans Kok, a Virginia grower who organized the group.

Last year, several dozen ballots weren’t counted because the USDA received them too late and FACTT expects those votes swayed heavily against the checkoff, he said.

Growers who have avoided paying the annual assessment can nonetheless vote in the referendum, though they must show they’re eligible to cast ballots, Kok said. This verification process takes time, which is likely why their ballots arrived late.

“This year, we have focused very heavily on those people,” he said. “A lot of it will depend on the brave farmers who step forward.”

The results of the referendum are kept confidential by USDA and cannot be used to fine farmers who have avoided paying their annual checkoff assessments, Kok said.

Christmas tree research is more effective when its locally focused and overseen by academics, while the promotions haven’t been effective — particularly compared to direct marketing by individual farmers, he said.

Consumers who prefer real trees are generally families with young children who have a Christian heritage, Kok said.

The industry’s penetration of that market has basically stayed the same, while artificial trees are favored by the elderly and young adults without families, he said. “Our market segment hasn’t changed over decades.”


Bills propose beginning farmer loans, incentives

Three bills propose to help beginning Oregon farmers overcome cash shortages by creating a new loan program, fixing an existing one and assisting with education costs.

Due to the aging population of farmers and rising cost of farmland, Oregon should try to smooth the transition in farm ownership expected to occur in coming decades, said Ivan Maluski, policy director of the Friends of Family Farmers nonprofit.

Kristin White, a farmer in Washington County, said financial barriers can inhibit new farmers from expanding or sustaining their businesses.

“At a time only one percent of Oregon’s population is farming, we cannot afford to push out enthusiastic young people,” she said during a March 14 legislative hearing.

Under House Bill 3085, a new program would offer loans of up to $500,000 to family farmers with a net worth below $1.5 million and beginning farmers with a net worth below $750,000. The program would be overseen by the Business Oregon economic development agency in consultation with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The new program would serve as an alternative or supplement to Oregon’s existing “aggie bonds” loan program, which provides a tax break to private lenders who offer reduced-interest loans for land and equipment to beginning and expanding farmers.

Only two “aggie bond” loans have been made since the program was created in 2013, with just a single lender participating, said Maluski. “We had much higher hopes for aggie bonds to help address this problem.”

The intent of House Bill 3091 would be to allow more farmers to benefit from the program by reducing the associated fees, which currently include $250 for the application fee and 1.5% of the loan for a processing fee, with a minimum payment of $1,500.

Under the bill, those fees would be reduced to $100 and 1% of the loan, with a minimum processing payment of $500.

Finally, a fund would be created under House Bill 3090 to provide student loan repayment subsidies, scholarships and other incentives for people studying agriculture at Oregon colleges and universities.

The bill doesn’t specify how much would be allocated to the fund.

The program would be overseen by the Oregon Department of Agriculture and would establish preferences for students who intend to grow food with organic practices or for local markets.

The Oregon Farm Bureau objects to the preference for organic practices and local markets over other safe and legal farm practices and markets, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the group.

“We prefer the program be available to all farmers and ranchers looking to get into the industry,” she said.

Grass seed grown in Oregon is often exported elsewhere, and while it’s not food, it’s often used for cover crops that improve production of corn and soybeans or for forage that’s consumed by cattle, said Roger Beyer, executive director of the Oregon Seed Council.

“There really isn’t a huge demand for organic grass seed,” he said. “Our grass seed is feeding the world even if people aren’t eating the grass seed.”


Oregon bill would make on-farm breweries easier

Agritourism activities currently allowed on Oregon wineries and cideries would be extended to on-farm breweries under a bill approved unanimously by the Senate on March 12.

Senate Bill 287, which would permit on-farm breweries to make beer, have tasting rooms, serve brewer’s lunches and dinners and hold special events, among other provisions, will now be considered by the House.

Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, cast the bill was a tool for bridging the urban-rural divide in Oregon.

“This is one more way to get people from around the state, who don’t really understand what farming is and how these products are really grown, out to these areas to wander out to see what’s being done and being produced,” he said.

The bill hit some initial turbulence due to the different role that hops play in the brewing process compared to grapes, pears and apples in making wine and cider.

Wineries and cideries rely on the fruit from surrounding orchards as a main ingredient, while hops provide flavor to a beverage primarily made from grains and water.

The concerns was that there’s less justification for allowing another non-farm use in “exclusive farm use” zones.

The original version of SB 287 applied to breweries generating less than 150,000 gallons annually with at least 25 acres of hops growing on-site or on adjacent land.

Proponents worried that requiring 25 acres of hop yards might exclude smaller companies from benefiting from the bill, while the Oregon Farm Bureau believed that a proposed reduction to 10 acres was too low.

The revised version of the bill approved by the Senate changed the threshold to 15 acres of hops for breweries manufacturing less than 15,000 barrels a year, which is the equivalent of 465,000 gallons of beer.

 


Lawmakers may ease small-scale on-farm processing

Small-scale processing on Oregon farmland would be subject to fewer county restrictions under legislation favored by both agriculture and property rights advocates.

However, one provision in the proposal has become a point of debate: whether the exemption should apply to on-farm processing of cannabis.

Oregon’s land use laws currently allow crop processing on farmland in facilities smaller than 10,000 square feet, but the buildings are still subject to county siting standards, such as landscaping and parking requirements.

Under House Bill 2844, such county siting standards wouldn’t apply to on-farm processing facilities smaller than 2,500 square feet, which proponents argue will allow farmers to avoid costly and time-consuming requirements without “spill over impacts onto neighbors.”

“We believe this will help a lot of farms access new markets,” said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, during a Feb. 26 legislative hearing.

Cooper noted that small-scale processors of mint or lavender may not even be aware of the county siting standard provisions of existing law.

The original language of the bill excluded all cannabis — hemp and marijuana — from the more relaxed requirements, said Dave Hunnicutt, president of the Oregon Property Owners Association, which supports HB 2844.

Under two proposed amendments, lawmakers could choose to exempt just hemp from the siting standards or extend the exemption to both psychoactive and non-psychoactive forms of cannabis, he said.

Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, said he’s voted against legislation easing marijuana restrictions in the past, but raised the possibility “that boat has left the dock” in terms of treating it different from other crops.

His argument came up against resistance from Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, who said marijuana can legitimately be treated differently because it remains illegal under federal law.

Clem said he believes the proposal can move forward in the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use, which he chairs, but the amendments need further discussion.

The committee also considered House Bill 2919, which would allow schools in “exclusive farm use” zones to expand onto contiguous land.

An enlarged septic field planned by the Kings Valley Charter School appeared to be the main impetus for the proposal, which led lawmakers to question why the project wasn’t allowed under existing land use provisions.

Clem said the committee would communicate with officials in Benton County, which denied the school’s request, to see if a change in land use law was actually necessary.

Another proposal considered by the committee related to guest ranches, which are currently allowed in “exclusive farm use” zones until 2020.

The sunset date has been extended in the past but House Bill 2435 would eliminate it altogether because guest ranches remain relatively rare and haven’t been controversial, said Clem.

However, the Central Oregon Landwatch conservation group said it would be more comfortable with the proposal if guest ranches had to show they still have underlying livestock operations.

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Renewable energy siting bill worries farmland advocates

Increasing demand for renewable energy in Oregon has spurred a proposal to exempt most such projects from compulsory review by a statewide siting panel.

Supporters argue it would be less expensive and time-consuming for county governments to review plans for solar arrays and other renewable energy facilities.

However, advocates of farmland preservation argue that counties will scrutinize renewable energy projects less rigorously that the Energy Facility Siting Council, which aims to ensure such facilities meet statewide standards.

Under House Bill 2329, the threshold for mandatory EFSC review of solar facilities would be increased from 100 to 200 acres of arable farmland and certain wind, geothermal and transmission projects would also be exempt from the statewide process.

A proposed amendment to the bill would require county governments to consider the same standards for siting energy facilities as EFSC.

“More renewables are coming to this state and we need to be ready to site them,” said Rikki Seguin, policy director for the Renewable Northwest nonprofit group, during a Feb. 28 legislative hearing.

Oregon’s renewable energy portfolio standard calls for half the state’s power needs to be generated by renewable facilities by 2040. Some local governments, such as the City of Portland and Multnomah County, have even more ambitious goals, she said.

The EFSC review process typically costs more than $1 million to complete, compared to about $50,000 to $80,000 for the county land use process, she said. The statewide process also usually takes a year longer than the county process.

Developers face a “ticking clock” with federal tax incentives to build renewable energy facilities, she said. “This timeline makes it more difficult to justify building projects in Oregon.”

When lawmakers established EFSC in 1975, the process was designed for coal, gas and nuclear plants, while solar and wind projects are more modular and don’t vary as much technologically from site to site, Seguin said.

All solar projects built so far in Oregon, except for one, have been approved through county processes rather than EFSC, so county governments clearly have the expertise to deal with the issue, she said. Those counties that are short-staffed could also recover fees from developers to pay third-party consultants for review.

“We need to recognize our counties are fully capable of siting renewable energy projects at a time our state is demanding them,” Seguin said.

Each county government is unique not only with staffing and resources but also in how it applies statewide land use regulations and the standards it applies beyond the minimum requirements, said Todd Cornett, administrator of the energy facility siting division at the Oregon Department of Energy.

“The bill could result in significant variation in the review and conditions applied to renewable energy projects across the state,” Cornett said during a March 5 hearing on the bill.

The 1,000 Friends of Oregon farmland conservation group is concerned that counties won’t sufficiently examine impacts to water quality and quantity, cultural resources and wildlife habitat, particularly since HB 2329 doesn’t provide them with funding for such undertakings.

“Counties, especially rural counties with low populations and fewer local government resources, lack capacity to address and review the complex siting issues relating to these large projects,” said Meriel Darzen, rural lands attorney for the organization, in submitted testimony.

County land use decisions can be challenged before the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals, which is geared toward county-level decisions rather than questions regarding large-scale energy infrastructure, Darzen said at the March 5 hearing. The EFSC process, meanwhile, aims to resolve broader issues, such as jurisdictional conflicts among government agencies.

“There is a concern about forcing a large project into a small box of county land use,” she said.

The Oregon Farm Bureau likewise argues that EFSC was established to analyze complex energy projects “which may have impacts that cross county lines” while HB 2329 would allow developers to “forum shop” when siting facilities.

“In recent years, the level of solar development on farm and rangeland has exploded, and these projects have the ability to have a significant individual and cumulative impact on our state’s agricultural economy,” said Samantha Bayer, OFB’s associate policy counsel, in submitted testimony. “The siting process for them should remain robust, and not at the mercy of the resources of any particular county.”