How much is that grilled cheese sandwich worth to you?
It may seem like an odd question until you consider that the decline in American dairy farms has been catastrophic (see animation below). According to FarmAid, in 1934 some 5.2 million dairy farms dotted America’s countryside, but between 1997 and 2017, the U.S. lost half of its 72,000 remaining dairies and today fewer than 28,000 licensed dairy herds remain.
In Oregon, once renowned for the quality of its dairy products, one historian said that in 1914 there were 1,004 licensed dairies in Portland alone. A recent article in Portland Monthly states that the number of licensed dairies in Oregon dropped from around 500 in 1990 to 192 in 2020 and that, on average, Oregon is losing about six dairy farms a year.
Interestingly, while the number of individual dairy farms in Oregon has been dropping like a rock, the number of dairy cows has remained fairly steady. That's because of the influx of industrial factory farm dairies—aka "mega-dairies"—that have flooded into Oregon due to our lax environmental regulations that classify these industrial facilities as "farms" instead of the factories that they really are.
The largest is North Dakota-owned Threemile Canyon Farms, a 70,000-cow industrial facility that supplies the vast majority of the milk used to make Tillamook cheese and its ice cream, yogurt and other products. It's also one of the two largest in the United States, according to an article in Columbia Insight on mega-dairies' use (and abuse) of our water resources. Ironically it has called itself a "family farm" in public hearings in Salem.
As my friend, organic dairy farmer Jon Bansen noted on his tour of Threemile Canyon, "The scale is impressive, but the biology is horrifying."
Of the wells tested so far, around a quarter have contained high levels of the dangerous nitrates that have plagued the Lower Umatilla Basin since at least 1990.
Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF), an organization that advocates for Oregon's small family farmers, posted recently that mega-dairies have played a major role in driving dairy farmers off the land, stating that they over-produce and flood the market with cheap milk, making it impossible for small dairy farmers to compete, while externalizing their environmental and social costs on the state's taxpayers.
As an example, FoFF's post states that last May Governor Tina Kotek met with community members in Boardman—where several industrial agricultural facilities, including feedlots and mega-dairies, are located—where she set a deadline to test for nitrate contamination from agriculture from all 3,300 wells used by households (see map, above). Testing on that scale is a huge expense that will be borne by taxpayers rather than the polluters, but as of the deadline at the end of September state agencies had only managed to test 1,001 of the domestic wells in the Lower Umatilla Basin. Of the wells tested so far, around a quarter have contained high levels of the dangerous nitrates that have plagued the Lower Umatilla Basin since at least 1990.
It’s shameful taxpayers are left with the bill instead of agribusiness and industry which have profited while contaminating the state's groundwater.
The federal government is stepping in to help with some of the cost to address the water crisis in the two counties affected, announcing $1.7 million dollars in federal aid to help deal with nitrate contamination in private wells. But according to Kristin Anderson Ostrom, Oregon Rural Action executive director quoted in the Hermiston (OR) Herald, "Folks can’t live out of 5-gallon bottles forever, and they shouldn’t have to. This is really just a long-awaited first step and there’s a lot of work to do to build on the testing we’ve already done.”
Ostrom added that it’s shameful taxpayers are left with the bill instead of agribusiness and industry, which have profited while contaminating the state's groundwater.
So what is having that grilled cheese sandwich worth to you considering the costs outlined above?
As I said in a recent post on social media, the fact that these industrial facilities were—and still are—allowed to operate on a federally designated, at-risk aquifer is outrageous. Oregon's taxpayers are and will be on the hook for the clean-up for decades while these extractive industries will be given a slap on the wrist (if anything) while continuing to operate.
I have rarely, if ever, republished a press release from any organization. But I was so appalled and ashamed by the spineless, kowtowing obsequiousness of the Oregon legislature when it comes to factory farms in our state that I'm making an exception in this instance. Instead of instituting a simple moratorium on approval of new mega-dairies in our state in order to get its regulatory house in order when it comes to our air, water and groundwater quality, animal welfare, human health, the survival of small farms and the vibrancy of rural communities—read my article, Big Milk Brings Big Issues for Local Communities, for details—our legislators instead bowed to pressure from agribusiness industry lobbyists to kill the bill before it even got out of committee. This denies Oregonians the right to listen to a full airing of, and a debate on, the future of our state.
The following was released by the following coalition: Columbia Riverkeeper, Food & Water Watch, Friends of Family Farmers, WaterWatch of Oregon, Center for Food Safety, Farm Forward, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Humane Voters Oregon, Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, Humane Society of the United States.
April, 12, 2019
(SALEM, Oregon) — Oregon is at risk of repeating the ecological and economic disaster that occurred at the Lost Valley mega-dairy in Eastern Oregon after three bills aimed at fixing the problem failed to pass this legislative session. This means the loopholes that allowed the Lost Valley mega-dairy (top photo) to rack up hundreds of environmental violations, threaten groundwater, and leave behind more than 30 million gallons of liquid manure can be exploited by the new owner of the property near Boardman. In the wake of regulatory and environmental failures surrounding the Lost Valley, which was permitted for up to 30,000 cows in 2017 despite significant public opposition, a coalition of nearly two dozen farming, consumer, animal welfare, and environmental groups had called for reforms, including a 'time-out' on state-issued permits for new mega-dairies.
Senate Bill 103 would have put a hold on licensing new mega-dairies to allow the Oregon Department of Agriculture and other state agencies time to ensure future industrial dairies wouldn’t cause similar unchecked damage. Senate Bill 104 would have allowed local governments to enact common-sense measures to prevent groundwater and environmental contamination from sewage and dead animals at new mega-dairies. Both bills received a public hearing but have died in committee without a vote
“The Legislature had an opportunity to place a time-out on new mega-dairies in the wake of the Lost Valley disaster, but failed to take any meaningful action,” said Tarah Heinzen, senior staff attorney for Food & Water Watch and a member of the coalition. “We will continue to call for a mega-dairy moratorium on behalf of all Oregonians—who value clean water, vibrant rural communities, and ethical business practices.”
“Industrial mega-dairies are using loopholes in Oregon law to expand their operations while operating under the same rules as the small and mid-sized family farms they are driving out of business,” said Ivan Maluski, Policy Director for Friends of Family Farmers, another coalition member. “Unfortunately, even the most reasonable reforms were blocked by lobbyists representing the growing number of mega-dairy operators that are putting our family-scale dairy farms out of business.”
According to new data released this week from the USDA Census of Agriculture, the dairy industry in Oregon and across the US is consolidating into larger and larger operations. Nationwide, the number of dairy farms dropped by more than 17 percent in the last five years even as milk production and sales increased, with smaller dairy farms going out of business as the largest farms grow larger.
Another bill, SB 876, was requested by State Senator Michael Dembrow to tighten up rules to prevent unsustainable water use by new large dairies. An amendment focused on preventing pollution and overuse of threatened groundwater by new large dairies with over 2500 cows was offered in the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources in the final days before a key legislative deadline, but even this modest proposal failed in a 2-3 vote with Senator Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) aligning with two committee Republicans, Senators Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) and Alan Olsen (R-Canby) to kill the reform.
"We participated in Senator Dembrow's work group for several months, and had hoped it would have led to reasonable industry groups working together with us to prevent the worst mistakes made at Lost Valley from happening again,” said Brian Posewitz, who worked on the issue both as a staff attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon and as a board member for the animal welfare group Humane Voters Oregon. “For example, lobbyists representing industrial dairies blocked a provision in an amendment to SB 876 to prevent unlimited exempt use of groundwater by new operations over 2500 cows in areas where other agricultural water rights are restricted by rule or order due to declining and limited supplies. They also prevented creation of a task force, which would have had equal representation from the industry, simply to talk about animal welfare issues at industrial dairies.”
"I think Oregonians would be shocked to know that the majority of dairy products now come from industrial mega-dairies like Lost Valley that raise cows in extreme confinement, where animals often stand in their own feces, with little to no access to the outdoors. While it's no surprise that Big Ag worked hard to defeat these bills, we're disappointed that three legislators on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee didn't listen to the majority of Oregonians who value animal welfare and sustainable food,” said Erin Eberle, Director of Engagement for Farm Forward.
"Lost Valley threatened groundwater, racked up hundreds of permit violations, treated their animals inhumanely, and left 30 million gallons of manure and wastewater behind, and yet the State Department of Agriculture didn’t prevent it from happening when they could have,” said Scott Beckstead, Rural Outreach Director with the Humane Society of the United States. “With a new owner of the Lost Valley site likely planning to re-open the 30,000 cow facility soon, we will keep working to ensure this and other industrial dairies aren’t allowed to exploit the loopholes in Oregon’s laws again.”
Read my series of posts outlining the long history of problems at Lost Valley Farm since it opened two years ago, including cows standing in manure from overflowing lagoons and a leaking tank containing dead cows, plus massive groundwater pollution, lawsuits from the state of Oregon and the farm's creditors, and former owner Greg te Velde's own arrest for soliciting a prostitute and possession of methamphetamine in Benton County, Washington.
On the first day of the 2019 Oregon legislative session in January, more than 1,500 bills were introduced, and there are likely to be at least twice that many by the time the session ends. Here is the latest report on issues affecting the food we put on our tables. Thanks to Friends of Family Farmers for their assistance with this report.
Clean Energy Jobs or Cap-and-Trade (HB 2020): As anyone who's paid attention to the news the last few days knows, there is historic flooding happening in the Willamette Valley, made worse by the effects of climate change. This bill attempts to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from the state's largest emitters of these gases by capping these emissions from most large industrial sources—those that emit more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) per year—effectively putting a price on carbon.
Shockingly, the bill exempts the state's largest agricultural producers of greenhouse gases, and your voice is needed to amend the bill to include these factory farms under the cap.
Sign here to send an e-mail to your legislator that Oregon needs to stabilize the climate by reducing industrial and other large sources of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as invest in climate-friendly agricultural practices.
Moratorium on Mega-Dairies (SB 103 and SB 876): Despite efforts on the part of a coalition of 22 health, environmental and animal rights organizations, both of these bills to tighten regulations on factory farm dairies, in part based on the egregious violations and environmental damage from the recent closure of Lost Valley Farm, were voted down in committee.
“Even the most reasonable reforms were blocked by lobbyists working with these big corporate agribusinesses,” said Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers, in an article in the Salem Statesman-Journal.
The article goes on to say that Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA), maker of Tillamook Cheese, and Threemile Canyon Farms, the Boardman-area factory farm dairy that supplies the bulk of the milk used to make Tillamook's cheese, testified against the bills, saying the entire industry should not be punished for the faults of one bad actor. It also mentions Easterday Farms, based in Pasco, Wash., which purchased Lost Valley Farm, has indicated it will reopen it as a dairy. The facility was previously permitted for as many at 30,000 cows.
Bans Sale or Use of Neonicotinoid Pesticides (HB 2619): Originally a statewide ban on the sale or use of products containing neonicotinoid pesticides, a class of powerful neurotoxic pesticides that is lethal to pollinators, this bill was amended to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that has been shown to damage children's brains. It no longer mentions neonicotinoids.
Ban Aerial Spraying of Pesticides (HB 2493): This bill, one of three that dealt with aerial spraying of pesticides, would have prohibited aerial spraying of pesticides of land within the McKenzie River and Santiam River watersheds, which make up much a significant portion of the Willamette Valley. It died in committee along with the other two bills.
Family Farmer Loan Program (HB 3085): Provides low-interest loans to small and mid-sized farmers for land and equipment, including beginning farmers, is now in the Ways and Means Committee where funding will be decided between now and the end of the session.
Beginning Farmer Incentive Program (HB 3090): Helps beginning farmers with student loan debt and tuition assistance. It passed out of committee and is now in the Ways and Means Committee where funding will be decided between now and the end of the session.
Double Up Food Bucks (SB 727A): $3 million in funding for Double Up Food Bucks programming at farmers markets and other farm-direct locations passed the Senate Human Services Committee and is awaiting action in the Ways and Means Committee.
Restrictions on Canola in Willamette Valley (SB 885): Maintains current restrictions on canola production in the Willamette Valley, capped at 500 acres per year and only under permit to protect the region’s specialty vegetable seed industry. Passed out of committee and awaits action in Ways and Means.
Ability to Sue for GMO Contamination (HB 2882): Protects farmers by holding the patent-holders of genetically engineered crops financially accountable when their products cause economic harm to farmers who experience unwanted contamination. Passed out of committee and moves to the House Rules Committee for further discussion.
In the last two years, we've all learned the value of just showing up. Two years ago, not showing up to vote cast this country into the nightmare we are living through right now. And showing up to a rally for women's rights demonstrated to the world the power and importance of women's voices. In the mid-term elections just last fall, sending postcards to complete strangers urging them to vote, and exercising our own franchise changed the balance of power on a national level.
Showing up, and learning the power of collectively putting our bodies where our beliefs are, has meant that from local school boards to state legislatures to the halls of Congress, our representatives are now more…well…representative of everyone in our communities.
Part of putting our energy into making change together also means getting involved in issues we care about, and I'd highly recommend that if you care about where your food comes from and about the small family farmers who work every day to produce the food we put on our tables, then you should make every effort to get yourself and your families to Salem on Wednesday, March 27. Not only will you get to meet many of those family farmers and show them you've got their backs, you'll have an opportunity to participate in the democratic process by meeting with your representatives in the legislature and tell them how important good, clean food is to your family.
If you're wondering what the heck the legislature has to do with your food, just take a glance at the issues before the current session: a moratorium on the factory farm mega-dairies that are spewing unregulated toxic emissions into the state's air and groundwater; a ban on aerieal spraying of toxic pesticides; bills that will support beginning farmers and encourage retiring farmers to keep their farms in food production rather than selling them for development; and a ban on the use of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides that are at least partially to blame for the collapse of pollinators. And those are just a few of the dozens of bills under consideration.
If you've never set foot in the Oregon's Capitol building, it's high time you did. And what better reason than to support the farmers whose labor we all depend on multiple times a day? Get more info and sign up here, and you can sign up to join a carpool to the event from Bend, Grants Pass, Amity, Portland, Monmouth, Corvallis, Springfield and other communities around the state. You even get lunch in the deal!
On the first day of the 2019 Oregon legislative session in January, more than 1,500 bills were introduced, and there are likely to be at least twice that many by the time the session ends. Here is the latest report on issues affecting the food we put on our tables. Thanks to the Center for Food Safety and Friends of Family Farmers for their assistance with this report.
Moratorium on Mega-Dairies: Introduced by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee to address the impacts of factory farm dairies in Oregon. Take action here. Read more about mega-dairies in Oregon.
SB 103: Establishes a moratorium on new "industrial" dairies—defined as those over 2,500 cows or large dairies that don't provide seasonal access to pasture—while making sure environmental impacts to water and air, as well as impacts to smaller farms, are considered when permitting these operations.
SB 104: Allows stronger local rules over siting of these industrial facilities.
Management of Future Mega-Dairies: Two bills emerged from a work group organized by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
SB 876: Creates a two-step permitting process for large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to ensure greater scrutiny before they go into operation.
SB 886: Sets limits (not yet specified) on the use of groundwater for watering livestock at large confined animal feeding operations.
HB 3083: Establishes a "Task Force on Large-Scale Dairy Farms" which would submit a report to the Legislature by September, 2020.
"Clean Energy Jobs" or Cap-and-Trade (HB 2020): Establishes a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s largest emitters—except for agriculture and forestry, two large sources of emissions and industries heavily represented by lobbyists in the Capitol—while creating an ‘allowance’ program intended to generate funding for climate adaptation and other programs. Public interest and small farm organizations are working to include agriculture and forestry in this bill.
Ban Aerial Spraying of Pesticides (HB 2493): Prohibits aerial spraying of pesticides of land within the McKenzie River and Santiam River watersheds, which make up much a significant portion of the Willamette Valley.
Ability to Sue for GMO Contamination (HB 2882): Allows farmers who have been harmed by contamination from genetically engineered crops to sue the patent holders of those crops.
Bans Sale or Use of Neonicotinoid Pesticides (HB 2619): Statewide ban on the sale or use of products containing neonicotinoid pesticides, a class of powerful neurotoxic pesticides that is lethal to pollinators.
Beginning Farmer & Family Farmer Land Access: Three bills that would support new and existing small farmers have been sent to the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources with a hearing set for 3 pm on Thursday, March 14. E-mail a letter of support for all three before that date (link for address and suggested verbiage).
HB 3085: Creates a new Family Farmer Loan Program managed by the state’s economic development agency, Business Oregon, to offer direct loans to family-scale farmers and beginning family farmers for land or equipment.
HB 3090: Establishes a new beginning farmer and rancher incentive program at the Oregon Department of Agriculture focused on issues of student loan and tuition assistance.
HB 3091: Reduces fees and costs to borrowers using the state’s existing "Aggie Bonds" beginning farmer loan program, which incentivizes private lower interest lending to beginning farmers and ranchers for land and equipment.
Beginning Farmer Tax Credit (HB 3092): Incentivizes landowners to lease land to beginning farmers and ranchers. Sent to the House Revenue Committee.
Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program (HB 2729): Provides $10 million in grants for farm succession planning and funding for both long term conservation planning and protection for working farmland at risk of development or conversion to non-farm uses.
Limits on GMO Canola in the Willamette Valley (HB 3026; SB 885; HB 3219): A 500-acre restriction on growing this crop is expiring in July, 2019. These bills seek to extend that limitation going forward because canola easily cross-pollinates with food crops in the brassica family, endangering organic growers and specialty seed growers. Contact your legislators here. More info on canola in Oregon.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
When asked about Threemile Canyon Farms and Lost Valley Farm claims to have “closed loop” systems, FoFF’s Maluski says he has to laugh.
“Threemile likes to talk about a closed-loop system where they’re capturing their manure, they’re fertilizing with it, and then they’re feeding the animals everything from the corn and alfalfa they grow to potato scraps and onion scraps,” he says. “But they’re ignoring a number of major elements, such as their methane output.” They’re not a closed loop on methane, he emphasizes, arguing that their much-touted digester only captures about a sixth of their total methane emissions.
Maluski notes that a 2005 Toxic Release Inventory from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that Threemile Canyon Farms, which at the time had only 50,000 animals on-site, was one of the nation’s biggest sources of ammonia emissions, estimated at 12,000 to 16,000 tons per year. “So if you conveniently ignore a major part of their operation then, OK, maybe you can get to closed loop,” he says. “But you’ve got to do that by ignoring a bunch of big loopholes in the loop.”
Van Saun at the CFS agrees. “It’s not so closed when you’re putting out enough ammonia that you’re in the top of all industry emissions, the highest single emitter of ammonia in the state,” she says. “That’s an externalized cost that they’re not paying for.”
Part of the reason that large operations are flocking to the state—in 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture census found that Oregon had eight mega-dairies with more than 1,000 cows, and as of 2012, it had 25 such facilities—is that Oregon’s land use system, while it was important in preserving agricultural land when it was created in the early 1970s, did not anticipate the emergence of large factory farms.
So, for instance, when Lost Valley Farm applied for a permit to site its 30,000-cow facility on land zoned for exclusive farm use, Morrow County commissioners had no choice but to say yes. An Oregonian article reported that the county had no legal way to stop what would be the state’s second-largest dairy, and that its three commissioners were deeply worried that it would sap already-limited groundwater from local farmers and exacerbate water and air-quality problems.
“When it comes to agriculture, communities don’t have any local control over what kind of agriculture is acceptable in the community and what kind of agriculture they want to limit or regulate,” Kimbirauskas says. “That’s because local control has been pre-empted in this state, meaning that policy on agriculture can only really be set at the state level.”
But for Monmouth dairyman Jon Bansen, it boils down to putting efforts where they will do the most good for the animals, the communities, and the environment.
“There’s different ways of making food, and I think some of them are more beneficial to human health,” he says of the reason he chose to operate a small, pasture-based organic dairy. “If you’re going to eat dairy, you should eat dairy that comes from cows that get to do what ruminants do: Go out, graze pastures, and live their lives on the soft earth, not on hard cement. To do what a cow is supposed to do. And if the animal’s really healthy, then the product it’s producing is going to be healthier for the consumer. That’s why we do what we do.”
Top photo from the East Oregonian. Photo of Bansens from Organic Valley Co-operative. Photos of Threemile Canyon Farms from Friends of Family Farmers.
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."
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.
“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: 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.