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Seeds of victory: Inside the fight to pass the GMO measure

How did a coalition of local small farmers convince two out of three Jackson County voters to ban genetically modified crops while battling a six-figure campaign funded by several of the biggest agro-chemical companies in the world?

"It was community-driven," said Elise Higley, campaign manager for Our Family Farms Coalition and co-owner with her husband of Oshala Farm in the Applegate Valley. "The initiative was already there. It gave us the chance to get out and talk to people about the risks of engineered food."

Backers of the measure to ban GMOs spent money on television, radio and newspaper ads, but their main thrust was low-cost, highly accessible social media, door-to-door leafletting, personal contacts and speaking at meetings, said backers.

"We had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers and supporters," said Chris Hardy, an Ashland farmer and chief petitioner for measure 15-119.

Hardy helped bring the issue into the public eye in February 2012, when he discovered Syngenta was growing GMO sugar beets near his chard fields.

"We got 180 family farms signed on in the region," Hardy noted. "Virtually every person I spoke with got it. They understood the Rogue Valley is narrow and that farms here are at great risk to be impacted."

"People showed up constantly and asked what they could do and how to contribute."

When the first election returns were announced at 8:20 p.m. Tuesday, Hardy said, "I didn't know we'd have such a big win. The energy was really high. The people of Jackson County triumphed against some of the largest chemical companies in the world — over Goliath."

The campaign reached out to the Latino community, which has always been heavily invested in agriculture.

"It was such a great campaign," says Alfredo Flores, editor of Caminos magazine in Talent. "We let them put free posts on our Facebook, and when they did, shares and likes went way up. Their Facebook had almost 6,000 people."

Higley and others addressed many groups, including the Ashland and Talent chambers of commerce. They weren't invited to the Medford-Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, which voted to oppose the measure, she said.

Another blow, she noted, came when County Administrator Danny Jordan issued a report in March claiming that a GMO ban might cost up to $219,000 to enforce.

"That's when I realized politics was going to pull this campaign," said Higley. "They didn't look at the costs for other counties that had banned GMOs, and the positive economic benefits of it. ... The strategy of the other side was big money and fear tactics, with lots of misleading accusations."

"The campaign was driven by literally hundreds of people," said farmer Chuck Burr, president of the Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association. "A farmer would know, it was the ground game that mattered. We killed them on the ground, and the voters are too educated and were probably insulted, honestly, by the excess of misleading ads."

Backers of the measure were outspent three to one, with 70 percent of the anti-money coming from out of state. County Clerk Chris Walker said it was possibly the most expensive campaign in county history.

According to the latest campaign finance reports filed with the Oregon Secretary of State, Good Neighbor Farmers raised more than $929,000, with a contributor list that boasted Monsanto Company, Syngenta Crop Protection LLC, Bayer CropScience, BASF Plant Science, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Pioneer, along with the National Corn Growers Association and numerous out-of-state sugar companies.

Backers reported $386,000 in contributions.

In spite of being out-raised and outspent, the measure passed with 66 percent of the vote.

It passed so handily, said Steve Fry of Fry Family Farm in Talent, because "the people did it."

Farmers met with Syngenta here last year, proposing a coexistence model, but Syngenta, said Fry, said it would continue as normal and left the meeting.

"That spurred the whole thing," said Fry. "They didn't care one bit about local farmers. But they (angered) the wrong people — like the whole county. I love our county. The people here want clean food. We had to draw the line in the sand somewhere, and we did. It was a big win."

Ian Tolleson, spokesman for Good Neighbor Farmers, said all of their claims in the campaign were accurate. "Everything we said is true. ... Their win was a triumph of ideology over common sense and science. I would not say they did a good job. Putting out half-truths and misleading voters is not a good job."

His campaign's name, Good Neighbor Farmers, was chosen because GMO companies favor coexistence with organic growers, Tolleson said.

Supporters of the GMO ban had "a lot of strategy" and worked with the library district campaign, led by former Ashland mayor Cathy Shaw, to get out the vote.

"The GMO (measure) absolutely helped us. You had a large number of people who cared deeply," said Shaw, adding there was a lot of overlap among the supporters of both measures. "One played off the other. ... We were communicating with the same voter."

Even without the GMO measure on the ballot, the library measure would have passed, Shaw believes, but the two measures boosted the normal 36 percent turnout for mid-term primaries to 52 percent.

The huge political force assembled for the GMO ban will not fade away, Higley said. Much of it will work to pass a ballot measure, proposed for November, to require statewide labeling of products containing GMOs.

"I think this is just the beginning," she said. "We're excited about what's coming up."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Seeds of victory: Inside the fight to pass the GMO measure