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Group kicks off campaign to support countywide GMO ban

Advocates and opponents of an upcoming county ballot measure that would ban growing genetically modified crops in Jackson County are gearing up to garner votes.

Financially, the political battle is severely lopsided against Measure 15-119, but its supporters are counting on a grass-roots education campaign and the follow-through of voters during the primary elections in May.

"We obviously know it's going to be a pretty difficult battle," said Elise Higley, director of Our Family Farm Coalition, a Medford-based political action committee in support of the county genetically engineered plant ordinance.

Thursday, the group kicked off its campaign to secure votes in favor of the measure with a gathering at its new office on the fourth floor of the Woolworth Building in downtown Medford.

While speakers prepared to outline the campaign's plans to get the measure passed, about 30 people shuffled around hors d'oeuvre and pamphlet tables inside the group's new office.

"It's really going to be a grass-roots effort. That's how we're really going to win this — by coming together," said Higley, who also owns and operates Oshala Farm with her husband in the Applegate Valley.

So far this year, the Our Family Farms Coalition has raised $6,115 and spent $896.46 in the name of passing Measure 15-119, State campaign finance records show.

In the same corner, political action committee GMO Free Jackson County raised $41,623.79 and spent a total of $23,116.32 in 2013 supporting the measure. So far this year, the group has raised a total of $6,165.00 and spent a total of $1,351.75, records show.

Our Family Farms Coalition's largest contributor so far is GMO Free Jackson County, which handed off $5,000 to the coalition last week, records show.

Representatives of GMO Free Jackson County did much of the legwork petitioning to get Measure 15-119 on the ballot.

Opposing the measure, political action committee Good Neighbor Farmers has raised $186,275.00 this year so far, and spent $54,085.64, campaign finance records show.

About $52,000 of the money spent has gone toward devising political strategy, conducting voter surveys and fine-tuning media relations.

Good Neighbor Farmers' out-of-state contributors include Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, which gave $20,000, and Montana-based Sidney Sugars, Minnesota-based American Crystal Sugar Company, Michigan Sugar Company, Idaho-based The Amalgamated Sugar Company, South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation, Western Sugar Cooperative and Wyoming Sugar Company, which all gave $10,000 apiece to Good Neighbor Farmers, records show. Furthermore, the Colorado Farm Bureau gave $1,000, the Texas Farm Bureau gave $5,000 and the Indiana Farm Bureau gave $1,000.

The groups largest contributor is the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation, which gave $25,000. The Oregon Farm Bureau Political Action Committee has contributed $10,000 and the Jackson County Farm Bureau gave $5, 000, records show.

"We have been contacted by other farm bureau groups who are concerned about these kind of things and want to ensure that is doesn't happen in their county," said John Watt, a former state representative and a consultant for the Good Neighbor Farmers. "Our group certainly supports all kinds of farming, organic, conventional farming. Oregon has a right to farm law that allows farmers to be able to grow the kind of crops that they want."

Higley said she understands the right of farmers to be able to grow whatever crop they wish, but not when it threatens the livelihood of other farms.

"People should be able to do what they want on their land, but when it kills what your neighbor is doing, that infringes on their rights." she said, scoffing at the group's name. "We are the real good neighbors."

Higley said the threat of cross-pollination between GMO seedcrops and organic seed crops is a primary concern of organic farmers.

Watt said the undetermined costs to the residents of Jackson County for enforcing the genetically engineered plant ordinance is another reason the Good Neighbor Farmers oppose Measure 15-119.

"We certainly respect what the organic folks are trying to do in growing their crops and we only ask for the same courtesy," he said. "These folks that are growing goods in Jackson County from the Good Neighbor Farmers group have farmed here for many many years."

Last year, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that bars counties other than Jackson from regulating genetically modified agriculture. The only reason Jackson County was not included is because the Measure 15-119 was already qualified for the ballot.

The issue came to a head last summer in Jackson County when about 6,500 genetically engineered sugar beet plants were destroyed in the clandestine acts of vandalism.

Chris Hardy, a founding member of GMO Free Jackson County, condemned the acts of vandalism.

The plots were managed by Swiss multinational biotech corporation Syngenta AG, which leases several fields throughout the county for growing genetically engineered sugar beet seed plants.

"We have a unique opportunity here to stop this," Higley said. "We're feeling really confident about it, we're feeling really good. We have confidence in the voters of Jackson County."

— Sam Wheeler