Fourth-generation Skagit Valley, Wash., seed farmer Jack Hulbert shows a field of cabbage March 8 near La Conner.

Local seed companies and seed growers have proposed a Skagit County ordinance to protect the region's $2.6 million brassica seed industry.

Brought forward by the Puget Sound Seed Growers Association and the Western Washington Small Seed Advisory Committee, the proposed ordinance aims to promote cooperation between commercial and noncommercial growers of brassica plants by establishing a method to resolve potential cross-pollination conflicts.

"The purpose of this is to protect the future," Seed Growers President Kirby Johnson said. "There's a seed presence here and it needs to stay."

Brassica plants such as cabbage, kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are particularly susceptible to cross-pollination, especially when growers allow their brassica crops to live through the winter and flower in the spring.

Cross-pollination can cause significant damage to the seed industry, which aims to produce consistently pure seeds for the world market.

As of mid-March, the proposed ordinance had made its way to the Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney's Office for review. If it passes review, it will be brought before the Skagit County commissioners for approval.

In Skagit County, commercial brassica growers are required by law to coordinate where they plant in order to prevent cross-pollination, but noncommercial growers, such as homeowners, are not.

Skagit County is responsible for 25 percent of the world's cabbage seed, according to the Washington State University Skagit County Extension's 2017 Agriculture Statistics.

Michael Picha of Universal Seed Company said those in the industry must abide by certain terms. If those terms aren't met, seeds can get rejected and seed companies and growers won't get paid.

"If it becomes a consistent factor, it's going to come to the point where the companies we're growing seed for aren't going to want to do business in this region," he said.

Those in the seed industry said the ordinance was spurred by an incident in 2017 in which a homeowner allowed his brassica plants to flower near a commercial hybrid cabbage seed crop.

While most homeowners remove their plants when asked, Johnson said this one refused.

Though there is a state law that discourages homeowners from allowing their brassica plants to flower, Washington State University Skagit County Extension Director Don McMoran said going through that process of enforcing that law would take months — long enough to ruin a crop.

"We need something at a local level," he said. 

If passed, the ordinance would create a mandatory dispute resolution process between farmers and the owner of the flowering brassica, said Will Honea, a Skagit County deputy prosecuting attorney who wrote the proposed ordinance.

If communication doesn't resolve the issue, the ordinance would give farmers the option of taking the matter to court. 

"The point is, if you grow these brassicas, you have to be responsible to the industry here," Johnson said.

For many seed growers, the ordinance is a necessary measure to protect the industry, but one they hope to never use.

Bob Peterson, experimental production manager with Sakata Seed Company, said Sakata has always had good relationships with growers and the community at large.

In Skagit County, Peterson said Sakata has never had an issue like the one that spurred the proposed ordinance. 

"I believe this ordinance just heightens awareness that we're all here as a community base," he said. "It provides some next level of accountability."

Skagit Seed Services co-owner Jack Hulbert said he and other farmers keep close watch of nearby plants that could contaminate their crops.

The lifelong farmer said incidents of homeowners letting their brassicas flower happens every few years.

"I think we need this ordinance because we're being encroached on by urban sprawl," he said. "Every road you go down, someone has a little garden where they're growing kale."

At the end of the day, those in the industry say this ordinance is a way to resolve conflict in a fast, fair and effective manner.

"The main goal is everyone works together," Picha said. "That's the overall goal. So that everyone works together as a collective unit."

​— Reporter Leah Allen: 360-416-2149, lallen@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Leah_SVH

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