News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Manure nightmare helps fuel large-scale farm reform

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

A now-defunct megadairy near Hermiston could impact the way local industrial-scale farms are permitted by the state.

Though three proposed chicken ranches near Jordan, Scio and Stayton have catalyzed a current push for policy reform, the 2017 regulatory fiasco that was Lost Valley Farm continues to leave a mark years after the fact.

Sen. Michael Denbrow (D-Portland), chair of the Poultry CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) Work Group, said the inability of regulators to prevent and correct significant groundwater contamination at Lost Valley Farm demonstrated a need for regulatory revisions. Among concerns were the fact that a CAFO permit was approved before the farm had adequate facilities to handle animal waste, and subsequent bankruptcy proceedings halted the state’s attempts to abate environmental threats.

“I think it showed us some of the weaknesses in our CAFO process,” he said.

Denbrow spoke during the first meeting of the Poultry CAFO Work Group July 7, created last month by the Senate Committee On Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery. The group is composed of state and local lawmakers, as well as industry representatives and environmental advocates, with the goal of examining how CAFO permits are issued for large poultry operations.

Among its members are Scio farmers Linda Minten of Minten Farms, Tim Nesbitt of Queener Farm, and Kendra Kimbirauskas of Shimanek Bridge Farm, who have been vocal opponents of the proposed chicken ranches. Also included are Bill Mattos of the Northwest Chicken Council, and Eric Simon, owner of J-S Ranch near Scio, one of the three proposed ranches, which received a CAFO permit May 26 to produce 3.4 million chickens annually.

Farmers Against Foster Farms, co-organized by Kimbirauskas in 2021, appealed the CAFO permit for J-S ranch on the grounds the farm threatens local air and water quality and would have a negative impact on local livability. Simon said the Department of Environmental Quality already determined his plan to manage animal waste does not exceed pollution standards, however Kimbirauskas said this is evidence of the need for stricter standards.

Megadairy steps in it

Years before industrial-scale chicken farms in the Mid-Willamette Valley were the focus of CAFO debate, a Morrow County dairy approved for up to 30,000 head of cattle created a dustup that almost led to a moratorium on CAFO permits as legislators, including Denbrow, sought regulatory overhaul.

Lost Valley Farm was granted a CAFO permit in 2017 and began operating that April. Shortly afterward state regulators learned the farm was unable to manage animal waste according to its approved plan. For months onward, cow manure accumulated in the millions of gallons and regularly contaminated local groundwater, despite state regulators directing the farm to correct the problem under the threat of fines.

After imposing $187,000 in civil penalties–the largest at the time for such an offense–state regulators sought an injunction against the farm in 2018. They reached a settlement with owner Greg te Velde in which he agreed to pay the fines over time and clean up the offending manure.

But no cleanup occurred, fines went unpaid, and te Vedlde was found in contempt of court. He later declared bankruptcy, owing $78 million to various creditors related primarily to construction and startup costs, and Lost Valley Farm ceased operations that October, leaving an estimated 20 million gallons of excessive manure for a potential new owner to deal with.

The property was sold in 2019 to Easterday Farms, of Pasco, Wash., which applied for a CAFO permit in 2020 to operate a dairy on a similar scale to Lost Valley Farm. However, Easterday Farms declared bankruptcy the following year and their CAFO permit remains pending until the bankruptcy is settled.

In response to the Lost Valley Farm debacle, lawmakers sought a moratorium on CAFO permits in the leadup to the 2019 legislative session so the state could review its current policies and consider possible reforms, including stricter regulations on daries with more than 2,500 cattle. Dairy advocates said this was an overreaction and claimed the problem with Lost Valley Farm was not the volume of animals but poor management, and argued farmers at large should not endure stricter regulations because of one bad actor.

No new laws related to CAFO permits managed to pass in 2019, however, the Oregon Department of Agriculture adopted a two-step approval process for CAFO permits in which a farmer first receives approval to construct their facility, then receives approval to populate and operate.

Information first, policy second

Denbow was on a 2018 work group that recommended this policy change, and said his past experience with CAFO operations is why he wanted to help lead the current work group. Though he has advocated for CAFO reform in the past, he said on July 7 the work group’s goal is to foster discussion and gather diverse input, and legislation is not an inevitable outcome.

“This is an opportunity for you all to ask questions of one another, and to make this a very interactive process,” Dembrow said.“We’ve tried hard to convene a group that represents a variety of backgrounds and special interests.”

Sen. Jeff Golden (D-Ashland), chair of the committee that formed the work group, also emphasized its fact-finding purpose.

“There’s no foregone conclusion that this will lead to legislation, or that it won’t,” he said, adding work group members should, “think of this as a very long informational hearing on the topic.”

Golden, who does not serve on the work group himself, said so many individuals were interested in serving that a special meeting for Aug. 31 was scheduled solely for public input. Other meetings include a discussion on land use scheduled for July 27, water use scheduled for Aug. 12, and a final meeting to discuss findings and potential policy recommendations Sept. 15. 

The meetings are held remotely and are open to the public, and can be attended on the Senate Committee On Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery webpage or emailing Beth Patrino at [email protected].

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