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Farmers file suit over GMO crop ban

Jackson County voters passed a ban on GMO crops last May. Now the courts will test the ordinance's validity. 

Two county farms that grow Roundup Ready alfalfa filed suit Tuesday asking a state court to overturn the voter-approved ban on genetically modified crops or force the county to pay a total of $4.2 million, which they claim is the value of the crop they would have to destroy.

Backed by a coalition of farming, agriculture and biotechnology organizations, Schulz Family Farms LLC of Gold Hill and James and Marilyn Frink and their family trust have filed suit in Jackson County Circuit Court.

County voters approved the GMO crop ban in May, with nearly two-thirds of the votes cast supporting the ban. More than $1.2 million was spent on the local campaign, the bulk of it coming from large agri-business concerns such as Monsanto and Syngenta, which produce GMO seed.

The lawsuit names Jackson County as the defendant, although the county did not impose the measure but is the government tasked with enacting it.

"We're seeking for the court to find the ban is in violation of state law," said Shannon Armstrong, an attorney with Portland law firm Markowitz Herbold PC. 

Although there may be other Roundup Ready alfalfa growers affected by the ban, none has sought the firm's services, she said. 

The 34-page complaint claims the ordinance, which goes into effect June 6, 2015, conflicts with Oregon's Right to Farm Act and will require farmers to destroy previously planted commercial crops.

In the complaint, Bruce Schulz estimates he would lose just over $2.2 million by removing his existing alfalfa and planting a less lucrative grain crop on his 105 acres for the four years that would be necessary to eliminate traces of the GMO alfalfa plants.

The Frinks also claim in the suit they would be forced to tear out 200 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa and would lose $2 million. No other crop would be as profitable on their land and, after waiting four years to replant, they would have lost customers and would be too old to start anew, the complaint says.

The suit says that Roundup Ready alfalfa can withstand the application of herbicide, enabling farmers to control weeds that would compete with the alfalfa. Once the alfalfa plants are established, hay can be harvested from them for up to 10 years, the suit says.

Armstrong said farmers filed suit in Hawaii after voters passed similar restrictions in Kauai and Maui.

The suit states the voter-approved ordinance "purports to prevent harm" to other agricultural operations, but does not require evidence of harm or injury caused by genetically engineered plants.

The Right to Farm Act, updated in 1995, provides protection for farming practices on lands zoned for farm use, the suit states. "The authority of local governments and special districts to declare farming and forest practices to be nuisances or trespass must be limited because such claims for relief and local government ordinances are inconsistent with land use policies."

According to the complaint, the county ban groups genetically engineered crops together with nuisances such as noise, vibration, odors, smoke, dust, mist from irrigation, use of pesticides, and use of crop production substances.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com.

Bruce Schulz has Roundup Ready alfalfa in the left side of the photo and regular alfalfa growing in the right. He's one of the farmers who have filed a suit claiming the county's GMO ban violates Oregon's Right to Farm Act. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell