A coalition of community, small farms and environmental groups is collecting signatures on a petition demanding that Governor Kate Brown deny Easterday Dairy a permit to open a 30,000-cow mega-dairy on the site of the disastrous Lost Valley Farm just outside of Boardman, Oregon.
Their timing may be fortuitous, since last month the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) released a finding that the property was found to have elevated levels of nitrates in the soil, a dangerous pollutant known to cause methemologlobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” in infants, as well as the risk of elevated heart rate, nausea, headaches, abdominal cramps and an increased chance of cancer, especially gastric cancer, in adults.
So far the group Stand Up To Factory Farms has collected more than 1,400 signatures on the petition it plans to present to Governor Kate Brown tomorrow. (If you are interested in signing the petition, you can do so here.)
This is the second permit application the Easterday agricultural conglomerate has made to the ODA. The first application was withdrawn by Cody Easterday after the ODA put it on "indefinite hold" when Easterday pleaded guilty in federal district court to defrauding Tyson Foods, Inc., and another company out of more than $244 million over a period of six years by charging them for the purchase and feeding of more than 200,000 cattle that existed only on paper, a scheme dubbed "Cattlegate." Many of the other Easterday family holdings subsequently declared bankruptcy in court.
In July, a permit application naming Cody Easterday's 24-year-old son, Cole, as the applicant was filed with the ODA in a move widely seen as a desperate ploy to keep the property that the Easterday's bought for $66.7 million in 2019. An article in the Capital Press at the time said Easterday had plans to invest another $15 million in upgrades, including completion of a wastewater treatment system that was never finished, as well as bringing the farm into full environmental compliance.
According to a Stand Up To Factory Farms press release, “a broad swath of community, environmental, animal welfare and public health organizations have raised concerns given the Easterday family’s financial distress, the outsize impact mega-dairies have on drinking water quality, climate change, and the enormous quantities of water they use.”
The coalition notes that the mega-dairy, located on a federally designated Groundwater Management Area (GWMA), would use “20 million gallons of water per day in the midst of a historic mega-drought and generate 128 million gallons of manure-contaminated waste water in an area with dangerously high nitrate levels [already] in the community’s drinking water.” (See my article, "Big Milk, Big Issues for Local Communities" about the problems these industrial-scale factory farms present.)
Big news broke yesterday about the Easterday Dairy application to restart a 30,000-cow operation on the site of the catastrophic Lost Valley Farm mega-dairy in Boardman, Oregon.
According to a press release from Stand Up to Factory Farms, a coalition of consumer and environmental public interest groups, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced that the agencies had temporarily suspended work on the pending Easterday Dairy permit because of legal concerns.
The "pause" of the permit was announced by the ODA's CAFO program manager, Wym Matthews, at a meeting of the state CAFO Advisory Committee, which provides feedback to the department about its Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) Program.
Cody Easterday, whose name and signature appear on the ODA permit application, pleaded guiltyon March 31st in federal district court to defrauding Tyson Foods, Inc., and another company out of more than $244 million over a period of six years by charging them for the purchase and feeding of more than 200,000 cattle that existed only on paper.
In a scheme that has been dubbed "Cattlegate," Easterday pleaded guilty to wire fraud—making use of electronic media including telephone or fax machine, email or social media, or SMS and text messaging—which he allegedly committed in order to cover up his massive losses on the futures market. His trading activities are the basis for another pending federal matter against Easterday thatis being brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Easterday family, which Cody has headed since the death last fall of his father, Gale, has extensive holdings in Washington and Idaho. Two of the family's largest companies, Easterday Farms and Easterday Ranches, have declared bankruptcy in the wake of the scandal.
In the advisory committee hearing, Matthews said that the bankruptcies of these two major parts of the family's businesses appear to touch on parts of the proposed Oregon facility and are a major reason for pausing the permit process. "The Oregon property is in question at this time," he said. "The applicant status and ownership status [of the dairy] is potentially in question, which would cause us to pause."
In an e-mail response to my questions, ODA communications director Andrea Cantu-Schomus said that while the permit application itself is still active and pending, the Oregon Department of Justice continues to gather information about this rapidly evolving situation.
“It’s a relief to hear that ODA and DEQ have stopped work on the permitting process for Easterday Dairy,” according Stand Up to Factory Farms coalition organizer Emma Newton. “Easterday’s failure to disclose fraud and major financial difficulties during the application process gives ODA and DEQ ample grounds for the permit’s denial." Calling the pause on the permit a first step, Newton calls on the agencies to "deny the Easterday Dairy permit once and for all.”
In the growing scandal around the scheme that has been dubbed "Cattlegate," Easterday Farms is now tangled up in the bankruptcy of its sister company, Easterday Ranches, a giant ranching and feedlot operation in Washington state that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month. The filing was made after a meatpacker sued Easterday Ranches for defrauding it of $225 million for 200,000 nonexistant cattle.
Cody Easterday, president and CEO of Easterday Ranches, one of the largest agricultural operations in Washington State, is implicated in a complex modern-day cattle rustling operation involving 200,000 "ghost cattle" that apparently existed only on paper. Easterday was contracted to buy and feed the bovines for Tyson Fresh Meats, a division of Tyson Foods, then deliver them to slaughter at Tyson's processing facility, invoicing Tyson for their purchase and upkeep. The problem was that he never bought the cattle, but still invoiced Tyson for them, allegedly intending to use the money to cover losses he'd incurred in the commodities trading market.
An article in the Spokane (WA) Spokesman-Review said that on Monday (2/8), Easterday Farms filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy seeking protection from its creditors. It said "according to court records made public Tuesday (2/9), Easterday Farms has and continues to sell feed to the ranch side of the business that has been caught up in an alleged scandal of missing cattle owned by Wallula-based Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., a subsidiary Tyson Foods Inc."
In addition to being the president and CEO of Easterday Ranches, Cody Easterday is also the head of Easterday Farms—one of the many sprawling and intertwined holdings of the Easterday family that includes private planes, hangars, giant storage and packing sheds, restaurants and million-dollar homes. On its 18,000 acres in the Columbia Basin, Easterday Farms grows onions, potatoes and other produce, plus feed and grain for the cattle in the family's feedlot operations.
Easterday Farms is also the owner of the former Lost Valley Farm, the 30,000-cow mega-dairy that failed catastrophically in 2018 when the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) shut it down after issuing more than 200 violations of its permit in two years of operation. It cost millions to clean up the "environmental mess"—including 30 million gallons of manure and wastewater—left by the previous owner.
At the time of the sale in 2019, Easterday was required to reapply to the state ODA for a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit to operate a 28,300-cow mega-dairy on the site, which it did under the name "Easterday Farms Dairy." While the ODA issued a "letter of satisfaction" at the end of 2019 for the cleanup at Lost Valley Farm, according to sources the Easterdays will still need to invest $15 million to bring the facility into full environmental compliance.
Cole Easterday, a co-owner of the new dairy business, said, "Though the situation with Easterday Ranches and Easterday Farms is unfortunate, Easterday Dairy LLC’s commitment to our current CAFO permit and our permit application is unchanged,” according to an article in the Capital Press.
The article quotes Stephanie Page, natural resources program director for the ODA, as saying that the lawsuit and bankruptcy potentially add another layer of complications. "I think we’ve all been on the same page in terms of not wanting to jump to conclusions," Page said. "We’re just continuing to evaluate the info we’ve gotten about the business structures, and how they’re separate but also making sure we understand how they’re interrelated."
In an e-mail, ODA communications director Andrea Cantu-Schomus said that the ODA and the state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are "required by Oregon law and EPA CAFO rules to consider all applications and issue permits for facilities that meet all legal requirements."
When asked whether the bankruptcy filings may impact the viability of Easterday's operations at the dairy, she said that the agencies are exploring Oregon Revised Statutes* and federal rules for CAFOs to determine whether they have the authority "to verify the ongoing financial status of an applicant and or operator" in the permit review. She termed the lawsuits and bankruptcy filings "a rapidly evolving situation" and that "the state will proceed with integrity and transparency."
Though this is hardly the ODA's first rodeo when it comes to issuing permits to large industrial facilities that go on to create problems.
“We know from experience that ODA and DEQ are likely to claim they don’t have the authority to deny Easterday’s permit,” said Tarah Heinzen, Food & Water Watch Legal Director. “Recent events underscore that this is just not true. They can deny a permit to any applicant who hasn’t disclosed all relevant facts or who has misrepresented any facts in their application. Easterday Ranches’ and Easterday Farms’ significant financial distress surely qualifies.”
Cantu-Schomus later clarified in an e-mail when asked about whether the agencies are able to put a permit application on hold while determining its status that "there is no time requirement for ODA or DEQ to complete CAFO Permit development and start the public notice period."
Adding pressure to the ODA's permit process, a coalition called Stand Up to Factory Farms is pushing a bill in the state legislature for a mega-dairy moratorium in order to institute regulations on industrial factory farm dairies to protect Oregon's environment, air and water and the health of its communities.
In light of the Easterday scandal, the coalition issued a press release saying that "denying the [Easterday Farms] permit is not enough. It’s been clear for years now that these facilities housing tens of thousands of cows and producing waste on par with many cities are mega-polluters regardless of the operators. It is time for Oregon legislators to enact a mega-dairy moratorium to protect our state from irresponsible mega-dairy operators and prevent harms from massive industrial dairies until regulations are in place to protect Oregonians."
Amy van Saun, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, responded in an e-mail to a question about the Easterdays' various businesses, "While the intricacies of the various Easterday entities may not yet be clear, including to state regulators, one thing is clear: Cody Easterday and the Easterday family are the principals and the ones accused of massive fraud in Washington.
"It is beyond the pale that ODA and DEQ would still consider permitting the Easterdays to operate such a massive new source of nitrates and methane in Oregon," van Saun wrote.
It has the drama and intrigue of a Hollywood blockbuster—part western, part heist movie—centered on a middle-aged businessman up to his eyeballs in debt desperately trying to dig his way out scheming to rip off a giant national meat conglomerate, contracting to deliver thousands of cattle that only exist on paper.
Thing is? This is no movie, it's real.
Even weirder, it involves the catastrophic Boardman-area mega-dairy known as Lost Valley Farm—infamous for its drug-addled, prostitute-frequenting former owner, Greg te Velde, who racked up more than 200 violations of its operating permit in two years—and the scion of a multi-generational Northwest ranching family who swooped in and bought the failed dairy, proposing to infuse millions of dollars to bring it back to profitability.
The panicky businessman is Cody Easterday, president and CEO of Easterday Ranches, one of the largest agricultural operations in Washington State, who is also the main player in the Lost Valley Farm purchase. A tragic side note: His father, wealthy cattleman Gale Easterday, died in Decemberwhen the car he was driving ran head-on into an 18-wheeler hauling Easterday potatoes.
Reporter Anna King of the NW News Network broke the story that Cody had lost more than $200 million in the commodities market and had concocted the scheme in a bid to cover his losses. “As his commodities trading losses escalated, Mr. [Cody] Easterday explained that he began submitting fake feeding invoices as well as the fake cattle invoices,” Jason Wenglarski, vice president of internal governance for Tyson Foods, is quoted as saying.
The story describes Easterday's scheme to contract with Tyson "to buy fake young cattle, then charge Tyson for them. Then Easterday Ranches would fictitiously feed the cattle and bill Tyson for that feed. Next, the cattle operator would deliver some actual cattle—but not all—to Tyson when the on-paper cattle would be market ready."
Interestingly, Tyson didn't discover the discrepancy for several years, according to the Tri-City Herald, which said Easterday had previously worked with Tyson for many years when, in 2017, Easterday signed an agreement to buy young cattle and feed them until they were ready for market, submitting invoices and being reimbursed for his costs.
According to Tyson's lawsuit against Easterday, the scheme came to Tyson's attention in late November of 2020 when it discovered "errors" in its inventory records and met with Easterday. “Its investigation, including the admissions of Defendant’s President Cody Easterday, showed there were over 200,000 head of cattle that Defendant reported to be in inventory, but which did not exist.”
As for Easterday's pending permit application with the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to operate a 30,000-cow mega-dairy on the former site of Lost Valley Farm? At this point it's unaffected by the recent revelations.
According to ODA communications director Andrea Cantu-Schomus, "the State is continuing the process of reviewing the Easterday Farms Dairy LLC application and drafting a permit." She added that when the draft permit is ready, the ODA and Department of Environmental Quality will release it and any supporting materials to the public prior to holding public hearings. Based on that, the agencies "will review and make possible changes" before making a final decision on the permit.
Stand Up To Factory Farms, the coalition of community, farm, environmental and social justice organizations behind the mega-dairy moratorium before this year's legislature, issued a press release on the Easterday scandal, saying "these serious allegations underscore that Lost Valley Farm’s owner, Greg te Velde, is not the only 'bad actor' among mega-dairies, as the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the dairy lobby would have us believe. It is vital that the Oregon Department of Agriculture immediately deny the Easterday permit application for a new mega-dairy in Eastern Oregon."
Until then—or until the movie comes out—I'll keep you posted on developments and/or shenanigans.
A group of consumers has filed suit against the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) claiming its advertising misleads the public into believing its milk comes from cows munching on coastal pastures, when in truth most of the milk used in its famous cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter comes from cows fed on grain, living on concrete and dirt feedlots in factory farms in Eastern Oregon.
According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a legal advocacy organization for animals that filed the suit on behalf of the Oregon consumers, the TCCA's "heavily advertised 'co-op' of small family farms in Tillamook County represent just a tiny proportion of the company’s production. In reality, Tillamook sources up to 80 percent of its milk from the largest dairy feedlot in the United States. Located in the desert of eastern Oregon, the facility that provides the majority of Tillamook’s milk keeps 32,000 dairy cows (and more than 70,000 cows total) in inhumane, industrialized conditions. Tillamook sells dairy products nationwide under the 'Tillamook' brand name, and is poised to do over $1 billion in sales in 2020."
The TCCA's advertising encourages shoppers to "Say Goodbye to Big Food," depicting cows grazing on pristine coastal grass under sunny blue skies, when in reality, the lawsuit claims, its industrial practices are the epitome of "Big Food." The lawsuit, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, says that "consumers increasingly seek out and are willing to pay more for products that they perceive as being locally and ethically sourced—better for the environment [and] more humane. Tillamook has projected such ethical sourcing as its company ethos, deliberately crafting its marketing messages to attract these consumers, who believe they are getting such responsibly sourced products when they buy Tillamook cheese and ice cream. As the company says, 'Tillamook cheddar cheese is made with four ingredients, patience, and old-fashioned farmer values in Tillamook, Oregon."
The industrial factory farm where Tillamook sources its milk, Threemile Canyon Farms, covers 93,000 acres in Boardman, Oregon, and is "so large it's visible from space" according to the lawsuit. Unlike the rich coastal pastures shown in the advertising, Boardman is a hot, dry climate classified as steppe or semi-arid, the lawsuit reads, describing the area as “flat, arid and often swelteringly hot—nothing like Tillamook County." (Read more about the problems caused by mega-dairies in my story, Big Milk, Big Issues for Local Communities.)
Until recently Tillamook also bought milk from Lost Valley Farm, another Boardman-area mega-dairy permitted for up to 30,000 cows that racked up more than 200 environmental violations in its first year-and-a-half of operation and has since been shut down and sold. (Read my coverage here.) "Industrial mega-dairies are also major polluters, generating huge quantities of waste that is disposed of—virtually untreated—on land where it can contaminate rivers, streams, and groundwater and harm wildlife.
"The noxious air emissions these facilities produce can threaten public health, contribute to climate change, and decrease visibility in special places like the Columbia Gorge," according to a statement from a coalition of seven consumer, environmental and small farm advocates that has been working to establish more stringent regulations of these industrial facilities. [Oregon has extremely lax regulatory oversight of these factory farms.] Tillamook’s increasing reliance on industrial mega-dairies to ramp up production further contributes to overproduction, which lowers prices for family farmers and contributes to Oregon’s devastating decline in family dairies."
Tillamook's response, typical of corporations under fire, attacks the credibility of the plaintiffs rather than addressing the issues raised, claiming the ALDF "is anti-dairy and actively advocates for people to cut all dairy products from their diets." It further stated that "Tillamook takes great pride in being a farmer-owned and farmer-led co-op, and we only work with business partners that share our values and live up to our extremely high standards."
The lawsuit, on the other hand, states that Tillamook intentionally contributes to confusion "as to the source of its dairy products by extensive advertising that the products are sourced from humane, pasture-based farms producing 'real food.' Consumers who believe they are buying products from small, high-welfare, pasture-based dairies in Tillamook County are instead unwittingly purchasing cheese, butter, ice cream, and yogurt made from milk from the largest industrial dairy in the country—that confines tens of thousands of cows on concrete in the desert of Eastern Oregon." It seeks "to hold Tillamook accountable for its uniform and pervasive claims falsely representing the company's products as coming exclusively from small-scale, pasture-based farms in Tillamook County that provide individualized care for cows, when this could not be further from the truth."
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.
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 , 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 , 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.
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.