Friday, June 30, 2017

Your Food, Your Legislature: Death by a Thousand (or a Billion) Cuts?

A black hole—a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape—may well be the metaphor that engulfs the 2017 session of the Oregon legislature. Prior to convening, it was announced that the state faced a 1.6 billion dollar shortfall despite record low unemployment and jobs being added at a steady pace. Though that scary figure was revised slightly downward to $1.4 billion, it was still a frightening gap to fill.

The school garden at Sabin School.

A proposal, spearheaded by House Speaker Tina Kotek, was made to increase the corporate tax to help fill the hole. But even though Democrats hold a majority in both houses of the legislature, they were unable to sway enough Republicans to their side to get the three-fifths majority required to pass budgetary measures, so the effort fizzled late in the session.

See what I mean about the Black Hole of 2017?

With the corporate tax proposal dead and not likely to be revived, if at all, until the 2019 session, all that was left was to start cutting state budgets. Which means that any new programs with even a whisper of a budget are dying instantly in the airless vacuum inside the hole, and even existing programs may well die a death by a thousand cuts.

For Oregon's small farmers and ranchers, this is not good news.

Getting healthy local food to kids.

For instance, the state's Farm-to-School program was cut altogether from the governor's budget early in the session but was included in a bill (HB 2038) that is currently languishing in the Ways and Means committee, perhaps facing elimination or drastic cuts. This program not only gets healthy, local farm products into school meal programs across the state (and into the bellies of our kids), it is a revenue stream for many Oregon farmers. (Contact your legislator about this bill.)

Another key bill (HB 2739) is one that would protect farmers who have experienced financial losses due to contamination from genetically engineered (GE) crops. It would allow farmers to be compensated by GE crop patent-holders when their products have crossed property lines and caused financial damage.

Scotts genetically engineered bentgrass.

"I’ve had a front row seat to the damage caused by Roundup Ready GE bentgrass, which spreads easily on the wind and through water, infesting irrigation ditches and cross-pollinating with wild relatives," wrote Vale farmer Jerry Erstrom in an op-ed published in the Capital Press.

"I am not opposed to genetically engineered crops, but as a farmer of some non-GE varieties and after my experience with GE contamination in my alfalfa seed production and with the GE creeping bentgrass escape, I am a supporter of making the right people accountable if crops are damaged," he wrote. (Contact your legislator about this bill.)

Preserving biodiversity on Oregon's farms.

Way back in 2015—officially the "good old days," budgetarily speaking—the legislature made significant new investments in the Oregon Statewide Public Service Programs which led to new work in support of small farms, on-farm conservation and more. But now Oregon’s budget crisis has put those 2015 investments at risk. At $9.4 million (part of the larger Extension and Agricultural Research budget in SB 5524), cutting it doesn't represent a huge savings, and cancelling a promising program that benefits small farmers seems like a waste of that initial investment. (Contact your legislator about this bill.)

Even as this session winds down—the legislature is required by law to adjourn sine die, by July 10—there is still time to make your voice heard. I hope you take a moment to contact your legislator on behalf of Oregon's small farmers and ranchers.

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