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Federal judge approves GMO settlement

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke has approved a settlement that allows local farmers to temporarily grow genetically modified alfalfa, but they must submit their field locations to attorneys representing GMO opponents.

Farmers with genetically modified or GMO alfalfa would have up to eight years in which they could continue to grow their crops under terms of the settlement that resolves a lawsuit filed by opponents of Jackson County's ban on growing any genetically modified crops.

The settlement was agreed to by all parties in a lawsuit brought by Bruce Schulz of Gold Hill and James and Marilyn Frink of Sams Valley against Jackson County. Shulz said he would lose more than $2.2 million if he had to remove his Roundup-ready alfalfa.

"We're very pleased with the settlement," said Shannon Armstrong, attorney for Schulz Family Farms LLC and the Frinks. "In essence, we're saving their farming operations."

Jackson County voters in May 2014 overwhelmingly supported a ban on genetically modified crops.

Since then, the Swiss biotechnology firm Syngenta has confirmed it has stopped growing test plots of GMO sugar beets, which it grew on leased land in the Rogue Valley.

But some farmers who had already started growing GMO alfalfa protested. The Roundup-ready alfalfa can be sprayed with the Roundup herbicide and continue to thrive while surrounding weeds are killed.

As part of the settlement, farmers who began growing GMO crops could declare their intention to continue growing with the attorneys representing both sides of the lawsuit.

“We don’t think there’s very many farmers with these type of alfalfa crops,” said Elise Higley, the executive director of Our Family Farms Coalition.

The farmers would have to prove they planted prior to the ban taking effect, though the information wouldn’t be disclosed to the public, Higley said.

Despite her support for the settlement, Higley said the big concern that she and others have is that bees will become contaminated with pollen from GMO crops. Higley said the Roundup used in the crops could harm bees. However, Monsanto Corp. has said its product doesn’t harm bees.

As a result of the settlement, farmers will also have to harvest the alfalfa before it fully blooms out to limit the risk of contamination to bees and to prevent the GMO crop from pollinating nearby alfalfa fields, Higley said.

Armstrong said alfalfa farmers typically harvest as soon as the plants start to bloom, otherwise, she said, the alfalfa gets too woody. "They cut it early in the bloom, which is consistent with how they grow alfalfa now." She said she doesn't know of any alfalfa farmers who grow the crop for seed in Jackson County.

Armstrong said only a select group of attorneys will have access to the list of farmers who want to continue to grown genetically modified alfalfa for up to eight years. She said attorneys will conduct outreach to farmers in Jackson County who want to continue to grow their crops.

Jackson County voters in May 2014 overwhelmingly supported the ban on genetically modified crops.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @reporterdm.