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CAFO group suggests tighter regulations for chicken ranches

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

A legislative workgroup studying industrial-scale poultry farms has concluded such operations may require additional regulations accounting for local impact and cumulative effects, similar to the cannabis industry.

The Large Poultry CAFO Workgroup held its final meeting Sept. 15 after being formed in July to address concerns raised by three industrial-scale chicken farms proposed in Marion and Linn counties.

Sen. Michael Denbrow, (D-Portland), chair of the workgroup, said CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) may fall under Oregon’s broad right-to-farm policies, but just like the cannabis industry CAFOs pose specific challenges, and local jurisdictions and neighbors may benefit from an opportunity to shape policy.

“[CAFOs] really are not subject at this point to the county being able to set conditions on time, place and manner, as counties are generally able to do in other matters,” said Denbrow. “[The workgroup] would like to see us look at having that possibility.”

Dembrow spoke Sept. 22 during a meeting of the Senate Committee On Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery, which sponsored the workgroup. Denbrow shared how members of the workgroup, as well as members of the public who provided testimony, included those both for and against large poultry CAFOs, though the bulk of input expressed support for tighter regulations.

“Most of what we heard were concerns around the impacts of large poultry CAFOs on neighbors and also the aquifers in which they would be located,” he said.

Dembrow told the Senate committee no specific policy recommendations were on the table at that time, but he anticipated CAFO proposals were likely to emerge during the upcoming 2023 legislative session.

“My hunch is there’s going to be legislation coming from some members, at least,” said Dembrow.

CAFO opponents unswayed

Since being formed July 7, the workgroup met five times to gather information on how large poultry farms are regulated and their economic and environmental impacts, including discussions with state regulators and industry representatives. 

But despite two months of research and testimony, perspectives of group members were largely unchanged, and in some cases the divide between supporters and opponents of poultry CAFOs grew deeper.

Linda Minten, of Minten Farms in Scio, said industrial agriculture is “a cancer sweeping our nation” and she was concerned about the outsized influence of corporations like Foster Farms, which plans to distribute the chickens grown at the three farms in question. 

Tim Nesbitt, of Queener Farm also in Scio, said his time on the workgroup taught him more about the flaws in the system, such as water use exemptions for livestock, even if a large-scale ranch plans to use tens of millions of gallons watering millions of birds.

“I think it’s unfair to other farmers who have to go through another process to get a water right,” he said.

Kendra Kimbirauskas, of Shimanek Bridge Farm in Scio, addressed concerns that she and other opponents were just NIMBYs (“Not in my back yard”) opposed to local development, and instead the impacts of industrial-scale chicken ranches was something all rural residents should be concerned about. 

Kimbirauskas, Nesbitt and Minten were all supporters of Farmers Against Foster Farms, which was formed in 2021 in opposition to J-S Ranch in Scio, and later pushed back against proposed chicken ranches near Jordan and Stayton.

“I think this is a threat and a concern that’s not going to go away and we need to be proactive and take this seriously,” said Kimbirauskas.

In addition to community activists, concerns about CAFOs were voiced by local officials, including Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist. He said local impact needs to be considered, including the cumulative impact of multiple CAFOs on a region, and he wasn’t partial to either the state or the county enforcing regulations as long as residents felt reassured their health and safety were a priority.

“They need to know, when they are told they will be fine, they can trust it,” said Nyquist.

Supporters decry ‘misinformation’

As opponents of CAFOs continued to push for regulations, supporters of large chicken farms expressed growing frustration with what they saw as a campaign of misinformation.

Bill Mattos, president of the Northwest Chicken Council, was unable to attend the Sept. 15 meeting but said in a letter to the workgroup that concerns about air and water pollution were misplaced. He said the view that large chickens farms are inhumane and unsanitary was influenced by farming practices seen elsewhere in the U.S., not “state-of-the-art” facilities on the West Coast.

“All agriculture has aspects that annoy their neighbors, and to portray that it is only chicken CAFOs is grossly inaccurate,” said Mattos. “But all agriculture is critical to meeting our food demand.”

Mattos cited numbers from the Oregon Department of Agriculture that, during the last 15 years, only seven complaints have been received by the agency about poultry CAFOs, of which 36 are currently permitted. 

Rep. Jami Cate (R-Salem) echoed this statistic during the meeting and said criticism of CAFOs were “falsehoods” that don’t reflect the reality of industrial-scale farms. 

“There is so much speculation and misconception about agriculture that just circulates as fact, and there are a lot of lies being told in this workgroup about these chicken farms,” she said.

Cate said poultry CAFOs have been operating in the Willamette Valley unnoticed for years and, if the health concerns raised by opponents were legitimate, residents would have noticed those effects long ago. She also questioned the legitimacy of small-scale agriculturalists who present themselves as farmers, claiming she believes the title of “farmer” belongs to those whose sole income is agriculture, citing her family’s five generations of local farming experience.

J-S Ranch owner Eric Simon added that, if farms like his posed serious health concerns, he and his family would have felt the impacts.

“We’re the ones being exposed to it, and we’re doing fine,” he said.

Simon said his farm, which received a CAFO permit in May, will contribute to the supply of poultry in local grocery stores, not overseas, and help the Pacific Northwest become agriculturally independent. He said people who are upset may simply not be accustomed to the scale of farms like his, and hesitated to call them “industrial.”

“The sky isn’t going to fall if I build my ranch,” said Simon.

Wym Matthews, a program manager with ODA, clarified the statistic shared by Mattos and Cate, saying his agency accepts complaints related to water quality and permit violations, and complaints regarding air pollutants and similar matters are forwarded to the Department of Environmental Quality. He also said complaints received by ODA do not reflect any concerns expressed to local governments.

Next Steps

While presenting to the Senate committee Sept. 22, Dembrow said he wanted to form another workgroup to focus specifically on how CAFOs impact air quality, building on the research of a prior workgroup convened in 2007 to examine how dairy farms contribute to air pollution. 

This prior commission recommended creation of a new program within the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission to regulate emissions from large dairies, however, Denrbwo said funding at the time prevented the program from being established.

He also said legislators should look at the potential impacts of water use by poultry CAFOs, echoing concerns raised by Nesbitt about livestock water exemptions. 

Denbrow said a CAFO can currently draw from a well without any reporting or public accountability about how much they pull from an aquifer, and this exemption for livestock may need to be reconsidered.

“Especially as we have increasing drought conditions, and just more and more strain on our aquifers…ultimately it can create some problems,” said Dembrow.

Dembrow said he believes there are sensible solutions to these problems that take into account the needs of farmers, their communities and the modern state of agriculture. 

As of press time, no specific policies had been proposed, and the Senate committee had not announced another workgroup.

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