Ashland seed farmer Chuck Burr said he has a personal reason to support a proposed ban on genetically modified organisms in Jackson County.
He had to throw away $4,700 in chard seed after learning it might have been contaminated with pollen from nearby GMO fields.
"I'm up against it here," said Burr, the owner of the 10-acre Restoration Farm on Old Siskiyou Highway. "I have to make a living, and I have an absolutely constitutional right to engage in commerce. And if another company comes in from outside the area and prevents me from doing it, then my rights trump theirs."
Burr vigorously supports the campaign of GMO-Free Jackson County, which today plans to file 6,700 signatures with the elections office in the hopes of placing a ballot measure that would ban genetically modified crops on the May 2014 primary ballot.
Petitioners Brian Comnes and Chris Hardy, both of Ashland, said only 4,462 signatures are required, but if too many are ruled invalid, they'll have a year to gather more names.
Comnes said backers plan to address the Jackson County Board of Commissioners at its regular meeting today, then hold a rally on the courthouse steps and march to the Elections Office several blocks away to file the signatures.
The county charter requires ballot measures to be on a primary, general or special election ballot. Commissioners could call for a special election in May, but aren't likely to because of the expense.
The last special election cost the county $34,000, County Clerk Chris Walker said.
The proposed law has urgency for both health and economic reasons, Comnes said. Several organic farmers in recent months found genetically modified sugar beets, planted by Syngenta AG, a multinational Swiss corporation, within four miles of their farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had required a four-mile buffer from GMO crops to maintain an organic rating, he said, but the rule was widely ignored and the USDA suspended it earlier this year.
Still, half a dozen organic farms — in Gold Hill, Medford, Talent and Ashland — whose crops had been contaminated had to throw away seed or plow under crops so they wouldn't inadvertently plant genetically modified produce, he said.
Organic farmer Glenda Ponder of Abbie Lane Farm near the Rogue River said a farmer an eighth of a mile away is growing sugar beet seed for Syngenta.
"It ties our hands for saving our chard seed and planting or selling it as organic," she said. "Selling organic seed is a good way to make money, but we can't do it."
She saves seeds from all other crops for replanting, but not chard, which is in the same family as sugar beets and accepts beet pollen.
"Crops need an isolation distance," said Burr, who grows more than 300 varieties of "true to type" seeds for the seed market and is inspected annually by Oregon Tilth for organic certification.
GMO corporations, he adds, should be limited to planting in wide open regions, such as the Great Plains, not in narrow valleys such as the Rogue Valley.
Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said the Legislature will study such an isolation zone statewide in its upcoming session.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.