Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Your Food, Your Legislature: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The following is an edited version of an original report that was published on the Friends of Family Farmers' Muckboots in the Capitol blog. The numbered title of each bill (in bold) is linked to an overview on the state website.

The Good

House Bill (HB) 3239: The "Aggie Bonds" bill was introduced with bipartisan co-sponsorship on February 27. It builds on 2013’s Beginning and Expanding Farmer Lending Program (aka Aggie Bonds) by expanding the definition of "lender" to include both NW Farm Credit Services and what are called seller-carried financing contracts, when a landowner agrees to carry the loan for the beginning farmer. This bill will help provide lower interest loans for qualifying beginning farmers.

HB 2446: The raw milk advertising bill would repeal the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA’s) ban on advertising legally available raw milk. Oregon allows small batch raw milk production if it is sold directly to consumers on-farm, but prohibits advertising of this legally available farm product, which severely limits farmers' ability to reach consumers.

The ODA had been directing some farmers to remove information about raw milk from their website, threatening them with penalties. Cast Iron Farm in McMinnville sued the ODA with help from the Institute for Justice, arguing that the advertising ban was an unconstitutional restriction on the First Amendment right of free speech. ODA settled the suit and agreed to not enforce the ban and introduced HB 2446 to repeal it.

The Good and Bad

Senate Bill (SB) 341: Similar to laws on the books in over 20 other states, this bill would protect agritourism providers—farmers and ranchers—from lawsuits and legal liability when customers come onto their property and are injured through no fault of the owners. This is based on the customer's presumed acceptance of the "inherent risks" of being on a farm or ranch.

The bill requires posting of clear signs, inspection of equipment and other steps to ensure baseline safety standards are being met. The goal is to help support agritourism activities in Oregon, which can be an important "value-added" source of income for farms, and it includes actives like U-Pick, harvest-your-own, pumpkin patches and educational activities.

On the "bad" side, this bill was firmly opposed by the powerful Oregon Trail Lawyers Association during the committee hearing. That means there will be a lot of extra work to do to ensure it gets a full public hearing rather than the lower-level "informational hearing" it received, and a committee vote.

HB 2674 and HB 2675: These two bills would give the ODA authority to set up "control areas" and other designations to keep genetically engineered (GE) crops from contaminating non-GE crops. The bills would also require that ODA gather information on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture in Oregon to fill in substantial data gaps that make responsible management difficult.

The bill got a generally cool reception from the House Rural Communities, Land Use and Water Committee, including from legislators who voted for a bill in 2013 that put ‘exclusive regulatory power’ over GE crops in the hands of the state, while preventing local communities from enacting their own GE regulations. The committee chair announced he would form a ‘work group’ to see if any ideas from the legislation can garner enough support to move forward and pass the committee.

The Ugly

SB 25: This bill would exempt a number of counties in Oregon from the statewide land use planning system, including requirements for citizen involvement and protecting farmland from development. This could lead to a loss of valuable farmland and make it harder for farmers to compete for land against developers and other interests when land prices are driven up. The bill received a hearing in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on February 23.

HB 2449: This bill would extend the sunset on bioenergy tax credits and amend a number of the credits. The Oregon Department of Energy has proposed a significant reduction in the amount of tax credit that would be available to animal manure digesters. These tax credits have primarily benefited large factory farms, providing an unnecessary and costly taxpayer subsidy for these operations in the name of "green energy."

Unfortunately, this proposed change has not gone unnoticed by the the large-scale dairy operations that benefit most from the current tax credit. Several amendments to keep the tax credit high for manure digesters have been proposed and, if adopted, may not only support existing factory-scale farms that have significant manure management and air pollution problems, but would amount to a taxpayer handout for new large-scale factory farms that may want to set up shop in Oregon as long as they install a manure digester.

On March 5, the House Energy and Environment Committee heard testimony on this bill, which Friends of Family Farmers, among others, supports as written without the amendments.

Click here for more information on the bills that are coming up before the Legislature this session. Find your legislators and let them know what you think. And stay tuned for further updates as the 2015 session progresses!

Read the other posts in this series, Opening Salvos, The Personal Gets Political and The Fight Takes Shape and Hanging in the Balance.

Photos: Evan and Rachel of Boondockers Farm; raw milk from Cast Iron Farm; manure digester from Farm Energy Images.

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