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.


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.”

‘Criminal’ mentality helps detect organic fraud

To avoid fraud, the organic food industry should “think like a criminal” to identify its vulnerabilities and shore up defenses against corrupt suppliers, according to experts.

The exposure of both massive and small-scale schemes to misrepresent conventional crops as organic has compelled organic companies to analyze their supply chains for weaknesses, industry representatives said Feb. 15 at the Organicology conference in Portland, Ore.

The Organic Trade Association, for example, plans to offer a training program later this year to food companies that want to update their organic system plans with fraud prevention measures, said Gwendolyn Wyard, the group’s vice president of regulatory and technical affairs.

When asked whether the exercise could result in “a textbook of how to cheat,” Wyard replied that organic food companies are simply trying to pre-emptively understand the strategies of unscrupulous actors.

“Fraudsters are going to do what they are going to do,” she said. “Any way you slice it, they are already thinking that way.”

The Organic Valley cooperative has focused on the risks to its supply of livestock and poultry feed, most of which is produced by members but which does include some imports from overseas, said Logan Peterman, the company’s agricultural research analyst.

The company’s assessment identified several “rabbit holes” in its supply chain that were potentially susceptible to fraud, such as the “spot market” for crops that are purchased without a long-term contract, he said.

Convincing brokers to divulge the source of crops is inherently difficult, as they prefer to keep such information confidential so customers don’t circumvent them by going straight to suppliers, Peterman said.

Organic Valley was able to gain some certainty about such crops by communicating with organic certifiers, who were able to provide generalized information rather than the sensitive data contained in transaction certificates, he said.

The possible problem with this approach is that some brokers aren’t certified as organic because they don’t take physical possession of the crop, Peterman said.

Even a company as large as Organic Valley, which has more than $1 billion in annual revenues, cannot easily dictate terms to suppliers in the global food industry, he said.

“If you go in there like a bulldozer, it’s amazing how fast you can burn bridges,” he said.

Based on what it’s found, Organic Valley is trying to rely more on its pool of growers for supplies, as opposed to external parties who may not have as strong a commitment to the cooperative’s values, Peterman said.

The company also recognizes that it must build long-term trust with brokers who are willing to cooperate on verification, he said. Brokers don’t deal directly with consumers and so aren’t as affected by scandals, such as the extensive importation of fraudulent organic grains uncovered in 2017.

“It speaks to the importance of managing those relationships,” he said. “How do we get them to care the consumers will eat us alive if something else comes up?”

Organic certificates are now often issued and conveyed electronically, allowing for more “creative” forgeries that match fonts and add certified crops, said Connie Karr, certification director for Oregon Tilth.

“If you’re relying on just the organic certificate, you’re potentially at risk,” Karr said.

To verify the authenticity of a certificate, companies can compare information from suppliers with lists maintained by certifiers, she said.

For brokers that aren’t organically certified, Oregon Tilth requires such extensive corroborating information that some have opted to obtain certification instead, Karr said. “It’s not really easy for them to be uncertified with us anymore.”

Proving fraud is often an arduous process: In one case, it took seven unannounced visits over two years to find evidence of deceit by a Southern Oregon alfalfa grower, she said.

Another key lesson is that collaboration with other certifying agencies and USDA’s National Organic Program is crucial to unearthing instances of fraud, Karr said. “We’ve never been successful finding fraud on our own.”


Researcher identifies new weapons against slugs

Essential oils from thyme and spearmint are proving lethal to crop-damaging slugs without the toxicity to humans, animals or the environment that chemical solutions can present.

An added advantage of these oils is the rapid mortality they cause in slugs, whereas the most common chemical molluscicide used by Oregon farmers, metaldehyde, simply causes them to stop feeding, said Rory McDonnell, Oregon State University’s slug specialist.

“The oils were essentially just as effective as metaldehyde in killing grey field slugs,” the worst culprits in Oregon grass seed fields, McDonnell said during the Oregon Seed League’s annual meeting, held in Salem, Ore., on Dec. 10-11.

Thyme and spearmint oils achieved 100 percent mortality at a concentration of just 0.25 percent, most likely through direct contact with slugs — though it’s possible their volatile emissions could also serve as repellents for the pest, McDonnell said.

Because they’re natural compounds, these oils would be exempt from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s registration and residue tolerance regulations for conventional pesticides, he said.

Before they could be commercialized as biological pesticides, data would need to be submitted to the Oregon Department of Agriculture proving they’re not toxic to humans or non-target organisms, though this should be a big obstacle, McDonnell said.

“I’ll eat my hat if it’s toxic,” he said.

McDonnell was hired by OSU in 2016 after Oregon farmers told the university’s leaders that more research was needed to fight slugs, which have become increasingly destructive in recent years.

Another positive development from McDonnell’s research is the discovery of a nematode that’s naturally parasitic to grey field slugs — phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita — on OSU’s campus in Corvallis, Ore.

The location if the discovery was ironic given that McDonnell had traveled thousands of miles around the state searching for the species, which is native to Europe and used in slug control there.

“The darn thing was a stone’s throw from my office,” he said.

Since then, McDonnell has discovered two other nematode species in Oregon that show promise as biological control agents.

In the United Kingdom, the phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita nematode is sold as a commercial biopesticide that’s been shown to reduce slug damage in winter wheat by 85 percent, he said.

The nematode finds a hole in the back of a slug’s head, then vomits up a bacterial soup that’s toxic to the gastropod. As the slug’s body decomposes, the nematode’s offspring feed on its corpse.

The BASF chemical company also markets the nematode in Europe, producing it in enormous vats through a secret process, McDonnell said.

Before the nematode can be commercialized in the U.S., BASF or another pesticide manufacturer would need to demonstrate to USDA that it’s not harmful to other species, such as the native banana slug.

“I think that would be a major stumbling block,” he said.

FDA outlines food safety guidance for farmers

PORTLAND — Federal food regulators outlined their proposed “guidance” to help the farm industry understand how new regulations will be implemented during a Nov. 27 meeting.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized rules for growing, harvesting, packing and holding certain fresh produce in 2016, the “guidance” explains the agency’s current thinking and recommendations for how they’ll be carried out.

During its meetings in Portland and other cities, the FDA hopes to solicit advice from the produce industry on how to make the guidance more clear and useful for growers and others, who have until April 2019 to submit their comments to the agency.

“What we do can only be as good as the information we have to work with, so we’re counting on you,” said Michelle Smith, an FDA senior policy analyst specializing in food safety.

Officials with the agency repeatedly told the audience that guidance recommendations are intended to compel farmers to analyze their own operations to best apply food safety principles.

To some extent, such ambiguity in the rules can be frustrating for growers, who want to comply with the regulations but want to be certain what they need to do, said Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, who spoke at the meeting.

“Please just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” Hanrahan said, summarizing the feeling of many farmers. “It’s really not as simple as this.”

Ultimately, though, the FDA is counting on growers to implement regulations in the most effective way, so the agency will benefit from their local insights and commodity-specific research, said Jim Gorny, senior science advisor for produce safety with the agency.

“Nobody knows your operations better than you do,” Gorny said.

Samir Assar, director of FDA’s produce safety division, said the agency was aware of certain tensions the regulations may present for agriculture, such as minimizing the risk of contamination from feces without disrupting local wildlife habitat.

“We’re sensitive to that and we want to avoid that,” he said. “There’s a recognized need to align sustainable practices with food safety practices.”

The regulations don’t prohibit domesticated or wild animals from existing on farms covered by the rules, but farmers are advised to determine the “reasonable probability” fields may become contaminated based on historical observations and other information, said Smith, senior policy analyst with the agency.

“This is one area we’re specifically seeking comments and data,” she said.

In addition to being aware of where animals may be defecating, growers should also consider other factors related to contamination, such as flooding, said Amber Nair, consumer safety officer with FDA. It’s also recommended they visually monitor fields for contamination, in case they may not be fit for harvest.

“These assessments are most effective when performed as close as practicable before the beginning of harvest or during harvest,” Nair said.

Some of the guidance recommendations, such as informing visitors of farm food safety policies, are often non-existent or not broadly applied enough, said Sue Davis, produce safety development specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

It will be helpful for ODA to highlight such recommendations as the agency conducts outreach and education about the Food Safety Modernization Act, the overarching law that was enacted in 2011 and led to the new rules, she said.

However, implementing such rules may affect farmers’ behavior, said Faith Critter, produce safety extension specialist with Washington State University. “I think people may not allow visitors on their farms if it becomes too hard to manage at the end of the day.”

USDA: Small farms bear greater food safety costs

Complying with the Food Safety Modernization Act will consume a much larger chunk of small farmers’ revenues compared with their larger counterparts, according to USDA.

Fresh produce growers with annual sales above roughly $3.5 million can expect to devote less than a third of 1 percent of revenues on complying with the federal statute, which was enacted in 2011, according to a recent USDA study.

Meanwhile, those with less than $500,000 in annual sales will likely spend about 6-7 percent of their revenues to meet FSMA requirements, such as water testing, worker training and recordkeeping, the study found.

The added expense may prompt some smaller farmers to stop growing fresh produce crops affected by FSMA, or convince them to sell off their operations altogether, said John Bovay, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

“Clearly, farms aren’t operating on huge profit margins, especially small farms,” Bovay said. “Consolidation is definitely an option.”

When comparing farms by size, the cost of complying with FSMA increases sharply as farms attain revenues of about $500,000, after which the expense mounts more slowly and then levels off once revenues hit about $3.5 million, the study said.

In effect, the total costs of training workers or testing water are relatively fixed, but bigger farms can spread those expense across a larger revenue base, Bovay said.

“Compliance cost increases with revenue, but at a decreasing rate,” he said.

When the rules associated with FSMA are fully implemented in 2022, the actual cost for large farms may actually be less than the 0.3 percent estimated by the study.

That’s because large growers have already been required by major retailers to adopt food safety practices that will be mandated by FSMA, Bovay said. “It’s going to accentuate the advantage the big guys have, because the big guys are already complying.”

Because following FSMA’s mandates will probably cause a small reduction in the supply of fruits and vegetables, the associated increase in prices will help mitigate costs for the farming industry as a whole, he said.

In general, though, the regulations will make it tougher for small farms to remain competitive while any improvement in food safety will likely take years to recognize, he said.

“Our food safety system is quite good in the U.S. and the risks are quite low,” Bovay said. “It’s not clear they will lead to benefits that exceed costs.”

Since some fruits and vegetables are more likely to be grown by smaller farmers, FSMA costs will be steeper for those crops and the areas where they’re commonly grown, the study said.

For example, the cost of compliance will fall below one percent of revenues for growers of broccoli, carrots, lettuce and spinach.

For producers of such Northwest staples as cherries and pears, however, FSMA requirements will cost nearly 3 percent of revenues on average.

Expenses as a share of revenues also range by state: 1.32 percent for California, 1.38 percent for Washington, 1.67 percent for Idaho and 2.67 percent for Oregon.

It must be remembered that FSMA is only one factor that’s increasing the cost of doing business for farmers, said Mike Doke, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers nonprofit, which represents cherry, apple and pear producers in the region.

“Costs are coming at growers from every angle — from labor to regulation — and this only adds to that,” he said. “They’ve got fixed costs going up and no way to make sure their revenue will go up to match it.”

Oregon and Washington produce about 88 percent of the fresh pears grown in the U.S., often in historical orchards that aren’t easily replaced with other crops, said Kathy Stephenson, director of marketing communications for the Pear Bureau Northwest marketing organization.

“Our average pear grower has 50 acres, so not a lot,” she said.

The true costs of FSMA are uncertain right now because key provisions — such as water testing — are still under consideration, said Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the growers, packers and shippers of apples, pears and cherries.

Investing in food-grade packing equipment that’s easily sanitized may end up being more expensive than accounted for in USDA’s study, though many costs associated with FSMA are already being shouldered by farmers, she said.

“Most of our industry has been active and engaged in food safety, so they’re not starting at that zero point,” Woods said.

Oregon wetland inventory raises regulatory concerns

An inventory of Oregon’s wetlands is intended as an “early warning system” to prevent regulatory conflicts but some lawmakers worry it effectively expands government jurisdiction over farmland.

The Oregon Department of State Lands is developing a statewide wetlands inventory map using multiple sources of information to show where wetlands are located.

The question is significant for farmers, who must obtain fill-removal permits from DSL before starting major ground-disturbing projects within wetlands.

However, current inventories maintained by the federal government and local governments are incomplete, raising the possibility that landowners may not know they’re filling or removing material from a wetland.

A statewide wetland inventory would reduce the likelihood of such “false negatives,” said Bill Ryan, deputy director of operations for DSL.

In 2016, for example, a Willamette Valley farmer began replacing hay barns destroyed in a fire with local government permission, only to have DSL claim he was building in a wetland.

One of the criteria to determine the existence of a wetland is whether the property contains hydric soils, which form when ground is regularly inundated with water for lengthy periods, Ryan said during a May 21 hearing before the House Agriculture Committee.

“The Willamette Valley in particular has a lot of these hydric soils,” he said.

Hydric soils will serve as a “wide net” for analyzing lands, but the agency will rely on the area’s current hydrology and other technical factors to decide whether it’s currently a wetland, Ryan said.

Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said he was concerned about DSL going beyond what’s currently considered a wetland by the federal government, particularly since development on farmland is already restricted under Oregon’s land use system.

The agency should be careful not to exceed the boundary of its statutory authority in developing the statewide wetland inventory, Clem, the committee’s chair, said. “I would put this whole program under review.”

Other committee members also expressed worries about the inventory.

While obtaining a fill removal permit in a designated wetland is possible through the purchase of mitigation credits, that’s not always financially feasible, said Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio.

“Being able to afford it is something totally different,” she said.

Rep. Brock-Smith, R-Port Orford, said landowners may lack the personnel to deal with the permitting process, while Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, requested an economic impact study of the statewide inventory and its effects.

While certain wetlands may be missing from the national inventory map maintained by the federal government, that doesn’t mean that federal agencies don’t have authority over them, said Ryan of DSL.

Areas not on the federal map can still be regulated under the Clean Water Act and state officials would use the same parameters to decide whether property contains a wetland, he said.

The goal of the statewide inventory is to show people where the agency has wetland authority so they don’t unintentionally break the law, Ryan said.

“That is really what this inventory is for,” he said. “We’re not increasing our jurisdiction at all.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau wouldn’t necessarily oppose DSL’s mapping project but it’s concerned about how broadly the agency is defining wetlands, said Mary Anne Cooper, the group’s public policy counsel.

The statewide inventory would presume many properties are wetlands until the landowner proves they’re not, she said.

“We think they’ve taken a very expansive view of their jurisdiction and have not honored some of the carve-outs that legislators have made to reduce their jurisdiction,” Cooper said.