Cows Living in Filth at Mega-Dairy While State Allows It to Continue Supplying Milk

This post summarizes media coverage involving incidents at Lost Valley Farm, one of two mega-dairies in the Boardman area that supply milk to the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) for its dairy products, including Tillamook cheese. Source materials used are listed at the bottom of the post.

Even before it opened, the Boardman-area mega-dairy known as Lost Valley Farm, owned by Greg te Velde of Tipton, California, was skirting state regulations by starting construction of the dairy without  having the proper permits in hand.

An article in the Salem Statesman Journal reported that "Oregon regulators approved te Velde’s Lost Valley Farm in March [2017], despite formal objections from a dozen state and national health and environment organizations that raised concerns about air and water pollution, water use and health impacts on nearby communities."

According to an article in the Capital Press, in its first year of operation alone, it:

  • Was sued by Daritech, a dairy equipment manufacturer, in federal court for allegedly failing to pay in a timely fashion more than $340,000 for the installation of equipment.
  • Was sued by IRZ Consulting for not fully paying for labor, equipment, materials and other services related to the construction and improvement of real estate.
  • Was sued by Laser Land Leveling, Inc., which sought to recover $1.4 million for labor, materials and other services. (The suit was settled out of court.)
  • Did not report as required on wastewater from the dairy that had overflowed into a pit not authorized for storage.
  • Did not maintain adequate lagoon storage capacity to deal with runoff in case of a storm.
  • Did not report as required that  liquid and solid manure had discharged from a tank, flowing into areas unauthorized for waste storage.
  • Was issued three notices of non-compliance with its CAFO permit between late June and late November of [2017], which required corrective actions.

Then the Statesman-Journal reported that te Velde had been convicted in July of 2017 of "careless driving contributing to an accident" after he hit an Oregon Department of Transportation truck on Interstate 84 in Hood River County and was fined $450. The same article reported that te Velde was arrested in August in a Tri-Counties, Washington, prostitution sting on charges of patronizing a prostitute and possessing methamphetamine. He was booked into the Benton County jail and subsequently released on bail.

At the time of his arrest in the prostitution sting, the same article reports, the Tillamook creamery, which processes the milk from Lost Valley and another mega-dairy in Boardman for most of its dairy products, issued a statement saying "we were extremely disappointed to learn of these allegations, and they very clearly go against the values and behaviors we hold true at the Tillamook Creamery Association." The article quotes Tillamook as stating that "the staff that we’ve worked closely with at Lost Valley are hard-working and dedicated to supplying high-quality milk, and we recognize that the alleged personal actions of one individual should not tarnish the professional reputation of everyone involved in the operation. That said, we expect the Lost Valley Farm organization to respond swiftly, responsibly and with a high degree of accountability in regards to this situation."

Lost Valley's problems didn't end there.

In February of 2018, the Capital Press reported that the State of Oregon had slapped Lost Valley with a $10,640 fine for allegedly discharging waste in violation of permit conditions, an amount that many critics called a slap on the wrist considering the number of violations found and the four citations the facility had been issued. Then in late February, the state decided to sue the mega-dairy for "repeatedly endangered nearby drinking water by violating environmental laws" and saying it should be shut down immediately, according to an article in the Statesman-Journal.

The Oregonian reported that "in the state’s lawsuit, inspectors said that te Velde and [Lost Valley manager] Love stored waste and wastewater in areas not permitted for it; never completed building all the required lagoons and other facilities to store it; the existing facilities regularly overflowed when it rained; they removed parts from a storage tank after agreeing not to; and the container that held dead animal bodies leaked."

Love and te Velde issued a dramatic written response to the state's lawsuit, which the Statesman-Journal reported as saying "the injunction would put them out of business, forcing them to lay off 70 workers, euthanize their cows, lose a $4 million per month milk contract, and default on local creditors."

The article continued: "'The department’s order would have significant ramifications to the local community where the dairy is located,' te Velde [wrote]. 'Many of our employees are Latino and rely on the dairy to support their family.'"

The Tillamook creamery, for its part, is reported to have said in an e-mail to the Statesman-Journal at the end of February that "based on a number of recent factors that indicate deterioration of the Lost Valley operation, Tillamook has initiated the process to terminate our contract with Lost Valley Farm."

Despite this, as of the end of March, Tillamook was still buying milk from the dairy, according to an article in The Oregonian, which also contained photos taken by an Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) inspector showing the horrendous living conditions of the cows at the dairy. The article quotes a spokeswoman for Tillamook as saying "it is better for the cows and environment to keep a relationship with the dairy."

Also in late March the State of Oregon announced it had reached a settlement with Lost Valley to allow it continue operating. An article announcing the settlement said that "under the new agreement, Lost Valley can generate up to 65,000 gallons of wastewater per day compared with the 514,000 the dairy estimated it would need. It also must comply with other terms of its permit, such as notifying the state if there is a wastewater or manure spill. And the dairy must remove 24.4 million gallons of liquid manure from its overloaded storage facilities by summer, so that it can avoid polluting local water sources during a heavy rainstorm."

Reactions to the settlement were swift.

"The state’s settlement barely requires more than compliance with the permit already in place—it’s a status quo deal that lets Lost Valley off the hook. The Governor and ODA should have continued seeking to close the operation, which they should never have approved in the first place,' said Tarah Heinzen, staff attorney with Food & Water Watch, in a press release issued by a coalition of farm, environmental and animal welfare organizations.

"If ODA refuses to use its authority to stop factory farms with repeated and serious violations, Oregon clearly needs stronger water and air pollution laws to bar such irresponsible proposals in the first place,” said Scott Beckstead, rural affairs director for the Humane Society of the United States. “For example, Oregon does not require air pollution permits or monitoring at factory farms, and legislation to establish air quality protections from the industry failed last year."

Amy Van Saun of the Center for Food Safety said in the press release that the organization was extremely disappointed in the state for not using its authority to prevent this factory dairy from coming in. "And now that disappointment continues with a weak settlement despite numerous, disturbing permit violations that endanger public health and the environment. We warned ODA and the Governor that this would happen, especially with an operation of this enormous size, and business-as-usual is not an acceptable response."

In the settlement, weekly inspections by the state to insure compliance were agreed to for a period of one year. If Lost Valley complies for that period, it will be allowed to return to operating under its original permit. Specifics have not been made available as to how te Velde and Lost Valley would rectify the violations outlined in the lawsuit and meet the new conditions for waste limits and removal while maintaining the same number of cows at the facility.


UPDATE: Lost Valley's owner, California businessman Greg te Velde, has been drawing water from a protected aquifer in the Boardman area, with the tacit permission of Oregon Governor Kate Brown, her staff and the directors of at least three state agencies, according to a damning article in The Salem Statesman-Journal posted on March 23rd.

It says te Velde "moved ahead without the necessary permits, using a loophole in Oregon law to pull water out of an underground aquifer that’s been off limits to new wells for 42 years, alarming neighboring farmers who say their water supplies are now at risk." The paper said it has documents showing that Brown and state officials "knew the dairy would fall back on the loophole if a proposed water trade was challenged."

The article said that te Velde drilled three wells into the aquifer that is used for drinking water by area residents. The aquifer, which local residents use for drinking water, was designated a Groundwater Management Area (GWMA), so named because nitrate concentrations in many area groundwater samples exceed the federal safe drinking water standard.

When state officials found out about the illegal wells, te Velde agreed to truck in water, but the newspaper reports that "records show he brought in little water. Instead, Water Resources officials discovered months later that te Velde actually drew most of the water from one of the wells, claiming an exemption for watering stock — just as the earlier memos among the governor's staff and state agencies had predicted.

"And when ordered to install a monitoring device on the well, te Velde put in one with an unauthorized reset button, according to Water Resources officials. Now, the state's water officials say they have no idea how much water the dairy is taking out of the aquifer."


UPDATE: A recent report in the East Oregonian newspaper indicated that Rabobank, a Dutch agricultural lender, claimed that Greg te Velde, owner of Lost Valley Farm, had defaulted on part of $60 million in loans for the Boardman dairy and two other dairies te Velde owns in California. "John Top, owner of Toppenish Livestock, said they will begin preparing next week for the auction, which is scheduled for April 27," the article stated. "However, according to a preliminary injunction filed in Morrow County, te Velde has not given the auctioneer permission to enter the dairy."

Today (Thursday, 4/5/17) I was able to reach Cody Buckendorf, Operations Manager at Toppenish Livestock, who said that an on-site auction was going ahead on Friday, April 27th, and that the auction company had been given access to the property. He said that their first day on the property to process cows prior to auction was yesterday, (Wednesday, April 5), and that the bank was estimating there would be 19,000 cows auctioned. When questioned about the conditions he observed at the dairy, he said that, contrary to the photos taken by the inspector that led to its shutdown (photos, above), "it was one of the cleanest dairies I've seen." Read the full post.


Read my article on Big Milk, Big Issues for Local Communities about the issues mega-dairies pose to Oregon's air, water, environment and communities, as well as Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese and other coverage about factory farms in Oregon. Photos obtained via a public records request by Friends of Family Farmers which shared them with media outlets.

Source materials as follows:

Big Milk: Big Issues for Local Communities

Giant factory farms are moving to Oregon, bringing with them concerns about our rural communities, the environment, and how we want to grow our economy, as well as challenging long-held traditions of our state’s agriculture as one based on small, family-scale farms. This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Edible Portland magazine that was picked up by Civil Eats (full article here).

It’s important to respect “the cow-ness of the cow,” says Oregon dairyman Jon Bansen, a member of the farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley. He's quoting sustainable farm guru Joel Salatin in explaining what differentiates his pasture-raised cows from those living their lives in closed buildings on a factory farm.

Monmouth dairy farmers Jon and Juli Bansen.

“It turns out that some things get more efficient with size, but biology doesn’t,” he says of the large mega-dairies that have taken up residence near the small Columbia River town of Boardman at the east end of the Columbia River Gorge. “To be standing on concrete, fed high levels of grain, treated like a widget instead of a biological being—it shortens their lifespan.”

Animal welfare isn’t the only reason to worry about mega-dairies. Another cost of these giant factory farms is to Oregon’s small dairies. In 2001, mega-dairy Threemile Canyon Farms, a 70,000-cow facility near Boardman, began supplying milk to the Tillamook County Creamery Association’s manufacturing plant nearby. One of the results of this move was that an average of nine family-owned Oregon dairy farms went out of business each month between 2002 and 2007.

Why did this happen?

“Mega-dairies flood the market with milk, driving down milk prices and making it increasingly difficult for family farmers to stay afloat,” Bansen wrote in an editorial in the Salem Statesman Journal.

Mega-dairies also degrade the lives of local communities. Bansen wrote that “the ways in which family dairy farmers and mega-dairies contribute to a community are drastically different. When something breaks, family farmers typically buy parts from the local store. When their animals need veterinary attention, they call the local vet. They support their feed stores, tractor-supply stores, and more. After a hard day on the farm, family farmers often engage in their community, schools, civic groups, and churches.”

Bansen emphasized that employees at mega-dairies have neither the time nor the money to spend in their communities because of low wages and the long hours demanded of them. And any equipment needed at the dairy is bought from the cheapest (mostly non-local) sources, and profits are sent off to corporate, often out-of-state, offices.

Waste and Groundwater

To give an idea of how large these mega-dairies are, all you have to do is refer to their corporate websites. Threemile Canyon’s cows—consisting of 25,000 milk cows, 30,000 replacement heifers, 7,000 steers, and an 8,000-calf nursery—produce 165,000 gallons of milk per day. If you look at a satellite view of the property, you see that the buildings the cows live in are so vast that employees have to drive to get from one end to the other.

Waste runoff at Threemile Canyon Farms.

The amount of waste that these 70,000 cows produce is also mind-boggling—estimates are around 436 million gallons of liquid manure every year. One of the several open-air, double-lined waste pits, called lagoons, covers more than 20 acres. While these large facilities have permits for discharging waste under the Clean Water Act, a state statute (ORS 468B-025) prohibits any of it from entering “waters of the state.”

“It says in very broad terms that no person in Oregon shall place or cause to be placed waste where it may enter waters of the state by any means,” says Wym Matthews, fertilizer program manager of the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). “There’s the broad thought in Oregon that folks should be responsible and not allow material they are managing—waste or not—to get into the waters and cause a problem.”

In other states, leaks from lagoons have endangered the drinking water of cities that rely on rivers as a water source, and manure from the spills has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of fish in waterways. Recently, a major liquid manure spill from a dairy operation in the Tillamook area caused the closure of Tillamook Bay due to contamination from fecal coliform, which had a significant economic impact on commercial oyster growers in the area.

The thing that worries Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF), an organization that supports socially and environmentally responsible family-scale agriculture in Oregon, is that much of the reporting and monitoring is left up to the operations themselves.

Cow standing in waste at Threemile Canyon Farms.

“The reality is that it’s not possible for there to be no discharge at all, so it’s a bit of an aspirational permit, if you will,” Maluski says. “They often rely on the CAFOs themselves to report a problem because [ODA inspectors] visit them typically once a year. Or, if someone says, ‘Hey they’re spreading manure out there, and it looks like it’s going in the creek’ on a Saturday, if ODA can’t get out there until Monday, they might not see anything.”

And now that another mega-dairy—30,000-cow Lost Valley Farm, just 30 miles from the Threemile Canyon operation—has received a permit from the ODA, farm organizations like FoFF and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP), as well as consumer protection groups like the Center for Food Safety (CFS), are on high alert.

The land occupied by these two factory farms is one of three sites in Oregon designated as a Groundwater Management Area (GWMA), so named because nitrate concentrations in many area groundwater samples exceed the federal safe drinking water standard. “What’s so concerning about putting another mega-dairy in an existing groundwater management area is that the Lower Umatilla Basin was designated in the ’90s as a place where there were already too many nitrates in the water—water people use for drinking,” says Amy van Saun, an attorney for CFS. “This is only going to make it worse.”

Wym Matthews doesn’t disagree. “I would describe the groundwater-monitoring well data from the Lower Umatilla GWMA as mixed,” he says. “There are some wells that are staying stagnant and not getting better or worse, some that are getting better, and some that are getting worse.”

Open-air waste lagoon at Threemile Canyon Farms covers 20 acres.

Asked how the ODA could issue a permit in such a sensitive area, Matthews says that the only way a permit could be issued is if the agencies believe that the permit is restrictive enough so that if there was discharge, it would violate the discharge standard. For Lost Valley, the department has set the discharge standard at zero.

“How can the state say yes to [Lost Valley Farm], which is clearly going to add a risk of nitrates leaching into the groundwater, when you’ve already got an area that’s impaired and not getting any better?” Maluski asks. “When they were digging their manure lagoons for that facility, they actually hit groundwater at 10 feet, so they had to get a special water right to pump groundwater away from their lagoons. It’s just absurd. Obviously, they’re going to have a couple of liners, but if those liners fail, you’ve got a very serious direct contamination of the groundwater.”

Emissions and Air Pollution

As many restrictions as there are related to the potential release of waste from these industrial farms into groundwater and nearby waters, there are no such restrictions on the very real emissions that are released into the air. Nearly a decade ago, the Oregon legislature passed a bill to address air emissions from these mega-dairies. Called the Oregon Dairy Air Quality Task Force, it was comprised of stakeholders from across the political spectrum, including representatives from government, academic institutions, the dairy industry, and public interest groups.

Warning sign at a confined facility.

The task force studied the current scientific literature relating to air pollutants, such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter emitted by these operations.

“Ten years ago, that task force came up with some really strong recommendations for how the state could move forward with some rules around air quality in order to get ahead of the problem of these operations coming in and having a lack of regulations to mitigate emissions,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, a member of the task force and the current CEO of SRAP. “And 10 years later, none of those recommendations went anywhere despite the fact that it was a consensus list of recommendations.”

Kimbirauskas says that at SRAP, which works across the country with communities that are directly impacted by factory farms, she’s seen what these operations do to rural communities. “It’s just like every other extractive industry,” she says, comparing factory farms to extraction industries like mining and industrial timber that threaten forests and wild lands.

“This is the same model with a different face,” Kimbirauskas continues. “It’s the idea that these out-of-state companies or corporations can come in, and they can call themselves family farms. But you can put lipstick on a cow, and it’s still a factory farm cow. They come in, and they’re extracting local resources. They’re extracting the water, they’re extracting the local wealth, and they’re sending it off to faraway places. They’re externalizing all of their costs of production, first and foremost, on the local community, on the local environment, and on the state.

“If we’re not careful, and we’re not paying attention to these issues now,” she warns, “by the time it does become in our face, it’s going to be too late, and what we love about Oregon agriculture and the local farm economy will be threatened.”

Read the rest of the article raising questions about the so-called "closed loop" systems at these mega-dairies and the fears of local governments that their hands are tied when it comes to the siting of these large industrial facilities in their communities.

Top photo from the East Oregonian. Photo of Bansens from Organic Valley Co-operative. Photos of Threemile Canyon Farms from Friends of Family Farmers.

Update on Tillamook's Mega-Dairy Suppliers

Due to new developments in the Tillamook cheese story I posted about previously, I decided an update was needed.

If I needed more assurance that my decision to stop buying Tillamook cheese was the right one, this past week the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environmental Quality both gave the go-ahead to Lost Valley Farm, a 30,000-cow mega-dairy, to begin operations in the Boardman area.

Tillamook's Boardman processing plant.

A California-owned facility, Lost Valley joins North Dakota-based Threemile Canyon Farm, with its 70,000 cows, in supplying milk for Tillamook cheese. According to a story in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "both dairies hold contracts with Boardman’s Columbia River Processing, which produces cheese for the Tillamook County Creamery Association, maker of Oregon’s famous Tillamook Cheese."

Lost Valley also had to gain the official approval of Morrow County's commissioners, although according to a story in the Oregonian, "the county [had] no legal way to stop what would be the state's second-largest dairy, and its three commissioners are deeply worried that it will sap already-limited groundwater from local farmers, and exacerbate water and air quality problems."

Lost Valley Farm began construction before obtaining needed permits.

Since the county had no choice but to approve the facility despite its deep misgivings, the article then asks, "that raises a crucial question for a coalition composed of local and federal government agencies, small farm advocates and environmental organizations: Are Oregon's rules for mega-dairies and livestock feedlots too loose?"

Ivan Maluski, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers, thinks so. "We've been warning for some time that Oregon's rules are too weak, and we're in danger of being a big factory farm state," he was quoted as saying.

In a recent op-ed in the Oregonian titled "The Toxic Truth Behind Oregon's Factory Farm Stench," Dr. Nathan Donley, a senior scientist in the Portland office of the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “The new Lost Valley [Farm] operation will generate as much waste as a small city that will be stored largely in open-air lagoons, then disposed of on fields.

Animal sewage drains from barns at Threemile Canyon Farms.

“Without adequate oversight, there can be no question that every time the state approves a new factory farm it will be opening the door to dangerous health risks—not only for workers but for all those families unfortunate enough to have no choice but to breathe the air around those facilities.”

As I noted in my previous post, Tillamook's slogan is "Dairy Done Right." I disagree. There is a bill, SB 197, before this session of the Oregon Legislature that will set common-sense regulations for air emissions from these facilities—there are no regulations currently on the books for the ammonia and other gasses they emit—so please consider e-mailing your legislator with your concerns and ask them to support this bill.

Suggested text for a message to your senator: "I am a constituent and I am contacting you to ask that you support SB 197's passage out of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources committee and into the legislature for a vote. Oregon’s air quality should not be compromised by out-of-state mega-dairies flocking here to take advantage of our lax regulatory system. Thank you. (Signed, your name and address)"


UPDATE: Though SB197 did not pass this legislative session, the work to establish regulations around toxic emissions continues. I've posted this column about the effects of corporate agriculture in Oregon from Friends of Family Farmers.


UPDATE: Lost Valley Farm, mentioned above and one of the Boardman-area factory farms supplying milk to Tillamook, has been the subject of intense scrutiny due to owner Greg te Velde defaulting on loans, getting arrested in a prostitution sting operation and for possession of meth, as well as a history of failure to maintain the standards set out in the facility's state permit. Read that story here.

Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese

"As Oregonian as a lumberjack sharing a craft beer with a beaver,
no one does cheese like Tillamook."
- New Seasons sale flyer

Their packaging says "Thank you for buying Tillamook and keeping our family farms strong."

Since childhood I've been a fan of Tillamook cheese. Molten and gooey inside grilled cheese sandwiches, grated into mac and cheese and melted over just about anything you can think of, its bright orange hue has been a color theme weaving through my life. On trips to the coast my parents would stop the station wagon at the cheese factory to follow the steps that the milk took from liquid to curd to sliced chunks which were finally pressed into logs, aged and dipped in wax (now wrapped in plastic) to be displayed on refrigerated shelves.

"Keeping our family farms strong."

On those same trips my parents would point out the cows munching grass in the brilliant green coastal pastures of Tillamook County, their pendulous udders swaying as they moved to the barns to be milked twice a day. "That's where our cheese comes from!" we'd think.

That's why it is with a heavy heart that I've finally decided to give up Tillamook cheese. It's not because the flavor has somehow fallen off of a cliff, or that I've discovered a better product—their extra sharp white cheddar had become our house cheese after my husband developed an intolerance to lactose. (Lactose is converted to lactic acid by cultures added to the cheese, and the longer it's aged, the less lactose remains.)

So why have I reached this decision?

Tillamook's Columbia River Processing plant in Boardman.

It turns out that only a portion of the milk that is used by the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA)* to make their famous cheeses is produced by those cows munching that rich, coastal grass. Instead, Tillamook has partnered with Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman on the Columbia River, a factory farm that produces around 2 million pounds (that's 233,000 gallons, folks) of milk per day from 30,000 milk cows kept during the entirety of their short lives in confined barns. Add to that another 40,000 animals consisting of calves and "replacement heifers," young females that will be added to the milking herd at two years old.

As for the amount of milk produced in Tillamook County itself, a report from 2014 titled "Tillamook County Community Food Assessment: Growing Healthy Communities on the North Oregon Coast" noted that at that time "the cooperative…gets more than half its milk from outside Tillamook County and does a portion [of its] other cheese making and distribution from Boardman, Oregon." [A subsequent lawsuit against the TCCA for false advertising claims states the amount of milk supplied by the mega-dairies in Boardman is more than 80 percent of the total.]

Dairy cow standing in manure slurry at Threemile Canyon Farms.

An article in the Tillamook Headlight Herald from 2012, announcing layoffs of 50 employees doing packaging at the Tillamook processing facility—outsourced to companies in Utah and Idaho—quoted then-TCCA CEO Joe Rocha as saying that "all ice cream is made in Tillamook. Other Tillamook brand products, such as yogurt, butter and sour cream, are licensed products produced by other companies. All local milk is processed in Tillamook."

Tillamook has also built a large cheese processing facility, Columbia River Processing, near Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman that was designed to produce 58 million pounds of cheese a year at full operation. In 2014 it built a 64,000-square-foot expansion project to process whey, which is used in products like infant formula, performance nutrition products and products that "help manage some of the impacts of aging."

An open-air manure lagoon at Threemile Canyon covers 20 acres.

According to an article in the East Oregonian, the system is a "closed loop" where the milk cows "are loaded onto slowly rotating carousels where their udders are sprayed with a disinfectant and attached to automatic pumps. Each spin lasts just a few minutes before the cows are unloaded back where they started." The rest of the loop is made of the waste from the 70,000 animals—estimates are around 436 million gallons of liquid manure every year—that go into digesters and open lagoons that is then spread on fields of grain corn and triticale which is used to feed the cows or is made into animal bedding.

The manure spread on the fields is supposed to be carefully managed to avoid having the runoff pollute area groundwater, but an article on another proposed mega-dairy in the area, Lost Valley Farm, reports that it would add an additional 30,000 dairy cows and their waste to the already beleaguered groundwater system in the county. "The area is home to the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, where the level of nitrates in the groundwater already exceeds the federal safe drinking water standard," the article notes.

Manure slurry is sprayed directly on crops.

There are also concerns about air pollution, and groups like the Center for Food Safety, Friends of Family Farmers and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project are pushing for new rules to regulate air contaminant emissions (SB197) from large dairy operations. In 2007, Oregon exempted large-scale livestock operations from air-quality oversight, even though elevated concentrations of ammonia from Threemile Canyon Farms have been linked to acid deposits in the Columbia River Gorge, and nitrogen compounds are contributing to elevated levels of ozone in the vicinity of these operations.

The nail in the coffin was driven in, for me, when I started to look into what these mega-dairies were doing to Oregon's small, family-owned dairy farms. As Jon Bansen, a third-generation dairyman who is hoping to someday turn his farm over to his son, wrote in an editorial in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "when the last mega-dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms, came into Oregon, an average of nine family dairy farms went out of business per month between 2002 and 2007. Mega-dairies flood the market with milk, driving down milk prices and making it increasingly difficult for family farmers to stay afloat."

Each barn (in white) is roughly a quarter-mile long.

Mega-dairies also degrade the lives of local communities. Bansen goes on to say that "the ways in which family dairy farmers and mega-dairies contribute to a community are drastically different. When something breaks, family farmers typically buy parts from the local store. When their animals need veterinary attention, they call the local vet. They support their feed stores, tractor-supply stores and more. After a hard day on the farm, family farmers often engage in their community, schools, civic groups and churches." Employees at mega-dairies have neither the time nor the money to spend in their communities; equipment is bought from the cheapest (mostly non-local) sources; and profits are sent off to corporate, often out-of-state, offices.

So for all of these reasons I'm looking for a new, delicious source for my cheese, and I'll try to buy from small cheesemakers who source their milk from small, family farms. It'll no doubt be more expensive than the cheap-for-a-reason stuff, but I'm willing to spend a little more and use a little less if it helps to support local families and communities.

The Tillamook slogan is "Dairy Done Right." I disagree. How about you?


UPDATE: If I needed more assurance that my decision to stop buying Tillamook cheese was the right one, this past week the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environmental Quality both gave the go-ahead to Lost Valley Farm, a 30,000-cow mega-dairy in the Boardman area. A California-owned facility, Lost Valley joins North Dakota-based Threemile Canyon Farm in supplying milk that goes into making Tillamook cheese. According to a story in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "both dairies hold contracts with Boardman’s Columbia River Processing, which produces cheese for the Tillamook County Creamery Association, maker of Oregon’s famous Tillamook Cheese."

Lost Valley also had to gain the official approval of Morrow County's commissioners, although according to a story in the Oregonian, "the county [had] no legal way to stop what would be the state's second-largest dairy, and its three commissioners are deeply worried that it will sap already-limited groundwater from local farmers, and exacerbate water and air quality problems."

Since the county had no choice but to approve the facility despite deep misgivings, the article then asks, "that raises a crucial question for a coalition composed of local and federal government agencies, small farm advocates and environmental organizations: Are Oregon's rules for mega-dairies and livestock feedlots too loose?"

Ivan Maluski, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers, thinks so. "We've been warning for some time that Oregon's rules are too weak, and we're in danger of being a big factory farm state," he was quoted as saying. (Read an extended version of this update.)


UPDATE: As if I needed any more reinforcement of my decision to quit buying Tillamook products, a massive dairy sewage spill—more than 190,000 gallons—that flooded neighboring properties and entered the water systems that eventually run into Tillamook Bay has closed the bay to commercial shellfish production, according to an article in the Salem Statesman-Journal. This is the third time in the last month that dairy sewage has spilled from storage tanks or drainage ponds and caused fecal coliform readings hundreds of times higher than the standard allows. These leaks have been the subject of lawsuits on the part of local fish and shellfish operators, who often have to shut down for weeks or months twice a year during rainy periods when flooding can occur. The economic impact of this latest spill to individual fishing families and shellfish operators has not been estimated, but the cumulative effect of the shutdowns and spills to local fishing and farming communities over the years cannot be underestimated.


UPDATE: A recent column from Friends of Family Farmers outlines the effects of corporate agriculture in Oregon.


UPDATE: My article for Edible Portland on the dairies that supply milk to Tillamook, titled "Big Milk: Big Issues for Local Communities," expands on the topic of industrial agriculture's creeping influence in Oregon, challenging long-held traditions of our state’s agriculture as one based on small, family-scale farms.


UPDATE: Lost Valley Farm, mentioned above and one of the Boardman-area factory farms supplying milk to Tillamook, has been the subject of intense scrutiny due to owner Greg te Velde defaulting on loans, getting arrested in a prostitution sting operation and possessing meth, and a history of failure to maintain the standards set out in the facility's state permit. Read that story here.


* I contacted the Tillamook County Creamery Association Consumer Relations department for this post and was told they could not comment on the facts referenced in this post because "production numbers like the kind you are seeking are not figures that we generally share with the public."

Photos of cow barn and manure lagoon from Friends of Family Farmers. Photo of sprinklers from Threemile Canyon Farms website. Aerial photo from Google maps.