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Oregon Vegetable Farmers Wrestle With Irrigation Rules

15:35PM Oct 20, 2014

Onion growers in eastern Oregon say their customers may be more demanding than the federal government has been in setting new rules for irrigation water quality.

The farmers have long feared the proposed rules, but when revisions were released last month, they gave farmers a way to sidestep them, the Capital Press agricultural publication reported.

The Food and Drug Administration is working on the rules to protect against bacterial contamination, such as from E. coli. Farmers said irrigation water, reused from field to field, was unlikely to pass muster.

The revised produce rule gives farmers alternatives, including establishing an interval from the last day of irrigation until harvest that would allow for potentially dangerous microbes to die off. Oregon State University researchers recently started field trials to determine how quickly bacteria dies off onions after harvest.

But a prominent figure in the Oregon and Idaho onion business says some customers are already asking packing sheds for certificates that show the water used to grow his company's onions met the Food and Drug Administration's proposed standards.

"I think we'll be all right as far as FDA is concerned but I'm not sure how we're going to be otherwise as far as dealing with customers," said Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, Oregon. "We may lose customers because of it."

Field trials last year at OSU's research station near Ontario showed that E. coli bacteria levels on bulb onions diminished rapidly after harvest. By the time the onions were packed for storage, there was no trace of bacteria on them.

"We are intentionally putting bacteria on the onions and seeing how rapidly it dies off," said Clint Shock, director of OSU's Malheur County research station.