Bill could shut down half of valley farms

By JANET COOK

News staff writer

March 17, 2007

Two Eugene legislators have introduced a bill in Salem that growers claim, if made into law, could shut down tree fruit production on about 6,000 acres in the Hood River Valley.

“They (politicians) want us to farm but they also want to over-regulate us. This bill could put many of us out of business,” said Hood River County Commission Chair Ron Rivers, a Parkdale grower.

Senate Bill 20 prohibits aerial spraying of pesticides within a one-mile radius of any school property during the academic year. A grower must also jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops in order to apply chemicals within a five-mile radius of a school.

These regulations require farmers to submit a spray plan to the Department of Agriculture. The agency then has 21 days to process that request and either approve or disapprove the use of chemicals.

“If they don’t allow us to make independent decisions based on monitoring (the presence of insects) then it’s going to change the way we apply pesticides in the valley. It will cause us to spray based on the calendar and it won’t work,” said Jeff McNerney, crop advisor for Chamberlin Distributing Company.

SB 20 was submitted by Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, and Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. As of March 7, the bill had been assigned to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee for review but a public hearing had not yet been scheduled. The legislators introduced the bill with the intent of lowering childhood cancer rates and ward off asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Jean Godfrey, executive director of the Hood River Grower-Shipper Association, has asked Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, and Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, to mount opposition to SB 20. The 350 orchardists and officials from 18 packing houses that belong to the organization have also been asked to lobby against the bill.

“If this bill passes, it will not only hurt farmers, but all of the businesses that support them,” said Godfrey. “SB 20 would come close to ruining agriculture in this valley.”

Smith said it is ironic the bill was dropped at a time when the House and Senate are struggling to clarify Measure 37. She said many farmers filed claims to restore development rights because of the regulatory burden that local, state and federal governments have placed on their shoulders. She said the state can’t do anything about global market conditions and has little control over work force issues — but it can refrain from tacking on more rules for beleaguered farmers to follow.

“This bill is outrageous. It just makes the Measure 37 issue more complicated because how do you save farm land if you don’t save the farmer?” she asked.

Jon Laraway, an Eastside Road grower, said the bill is another indication of the “urban/rural divide” that has split Oregon. He said elected officials from metropolitan areas should at least visit the valley before drafting up a new rule that could hurt the agriculture industry. He said many politicians seem to be unaware of the recordkeeping that is already required to ensure that chemicals are applied safely.

“We keep having more regulations come down on us that create more paperwork. So, we’re not able to spend the time out in the field doing what we want to do,” said Laraway. “There is all of this talk in Salem right now about ‘preserving farmland’ and then they propose something like this.”

Gary Willis, who has fruit trees around the Pine Grove School, said even organic farmers do some spraying. So, there is not an operation in the valley that will be unaffected by SB 20.

He said even when the market for pears is up, as it is this year, there seems to be some new threat on the political front that farmers are forced to battle.

“We’re price-takers, not price-makers. We grow the product and then hope we get enough to cover our costs. And every time a new regulation comes down on us, it drives up our expenses,” said Willis.

Laraway contends it is a conservative estimate that 6,000 acres of orchard would be off limits to spraying under SB 20. He said there is about 12,000 acres of farm land around schools in Parkdale, Wy’east, Pine Grove, Mid Valley Elementary and at the edge of Hood River. So, even taking away half of that acreage would cripple the agricultural industry.

Willis and Laraway said SB 20 underscores their filing of Measure 37 claims to protect their property investment. They contend the day may come when America’s food is produced in a foreign country that uses pesticides now banned in the states.

Heather Blaine-McCurdy, a Highway 281 grower, doesn’t believe SB 20 should be tied in any way to Measure 37, which she opposes. She said the bill is just a “terrible proposed law that shows exactly how little some politicians understand competitive dedicated commercial farming.”

McNerney said SB 20 will probably not make it out of committee as it is written. He is worried that some kind of a “compromise” deal will be made that still impedes farming practices.

“The bill itself does not concern me. But a smart politician will ask for the moon and expect to get something a little less,” he said.

“People can identify a totally ridiculous bill no matter what side of the Measure 37 fence they are on.”

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