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.
When the recent e-mail from New Seasons Market arrived in my in-box touting its efforts at "digging down to the ground for Earth Day," I looked down the page to see what great companies they might be celebrating. Then I saw under the headline "Dairy Done Right" a photo of a pristine river with this copy:
"We’re on board for a dairy-licious sustainability initiative with Tillamook County Creamery Association and Zero Footprint to create a riparian forest on regional dairy farms within TCCA’s co-op. By replanting unvegetated ground with native species, the project will sequester carbon, protect and improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat."
That's when my head exploded. Why?
While I applaud companies' genuine efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and repair damage to natural systems, this kind of token effort on a few farms in the diminishing membership of the TCCA co-op is the definition of "greenwashing," or "misleading or deceptive publicity disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image."
The vast majority of the milk used in Tillamook's products comes not from cows on farms on Oregon's coast, but from a 70,000-cow industrial factory farm dairy in Boardman, Oregon.
That's because the vast majority of the milk used in Tillamook's products—Tillamook is the commonly referred to name of the TCCA—comes not from cows on farms on Oregon's coast, but from a 70,000-cow industrial factory farm dairy in Boardman, Oregon, among those contributing to a crisis caused by pollution from industrial farms.
“If Tillamook and New Seasons want to sell real dairy ‘done right’ they need to stop sourcing from confinement mega-dairies like Threemile Canyon [Farms], which threaten our climate, clean air and water, and community health," according to Amy Van Saun, Senior Attorney for the Center For Food Safety. "They especially must commit to not contracting with the pending Easterday mega-dairy, which is proposed to reopen the disastrous Lost Valley mega-dairy near Hermiston, where residents are already suffering with a drinking water emergency caused in large part by mega-dairies in the area.”
Recent testing of drinking water from wells that draw from that area's aquifer shows the situation has grown dire. Even households that were fitted with reverse-osmosis filters designed to filter out nitrates were shown to have levels of the pollutant "between 29 parts per million to nearly 48 parts per million—up to nearly five times the federal safe limit" according to an article in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
In the same article, it quotes the technician who called with the test results from the six samples tested as asking, "No one is drinking this, right?"
Because of the extreme levels of nitrate pollution in the groundwater, mostly from agricultural sources, Morrow County has declared an emergency and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering using its emergency authority to intervene in the region.
When you think Tillamook, think factory farms.
Tarah Heinzen, Legal Director of Food and Water Watch has advice for shoppers: “When you think Tillamook, think factory farms. Behind the company’s sustainability claims and idyllic images of family farms is a harsh reality: most of Tillamook’s milk comes from the state’s largest mega-dairy, raising tens of thousands of cows in confinement.
"This factory farm is a dirty operation, regularly violating state air quality laws and contributing heavily to the climate crisis," Heinzen adds. "Oregonians know better and are demanding better, backing multiple bills in Salem to rein in destructive factory farms [see NOTE below]. Oregonians have the right to know the truth behind their food. And the truth is, there is nothing green about Tillamook.”
In addition, the TCCA is the subject of a class action lawsuit on behalf of consumers who are alleging that Tillamook violated Oregon's strict Unfair Trade Practices Act, claiming that most of the cooperative’s milk is produced by cows confined in an “industrialized dairy factory” in Morrow County, rather than living on small family farms with access to pastures in Tillamook County as the company advertised.
NOTE: Two bills addressing factory farms have advanced out of the Senate Natural Resources committee of the Oregon Legislature and are headed for the Rules Committee before going to the floor for a vote. One is a temporary moratorium on new or expanded facilities (SB 85), the other is for a package of reforms that is still in process (SB 398).
The Center for Food Safety (CFS), a public interest and environmental advocacy organization, called on Wednesday (9/25) for a consumer boycott of Tillamook dairy products "until the dairy giant commits to sourcing the milk in its products from farms which use the sustainable, humane practices that the company's advertising suggests."
This follows on the heels of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of four Oregon consumers alleging that Tillamook's advertising misleads the public into believing its milk comes from cows munching on coastal pastures, when in truth the vast majority of the milk used in its famous cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter comes from cows fed on grain and living on concrete and dirt feedlots in industrial conditions in Eastern Oregon.
Referring to Tillamook's advertising as "greenwashing," the CFS press release quotes senior attorney Amy van Saun as saying that "Big Food companies like Tillamook are exploiting consumer preference for small, local, and sustainable [food] by pretending that their practices support health, the environment, and a local living economy, when the reality is that the milk they're buying is dirty. Community food system advocates have fought too hard to protect the livelihoods of small family farmers, animals and our planet to see companies greenwashing their unsustainable products, especially a brand so beloved by Oregonians."
The lawsuit accuses Tillamook, which projects $1 billion in sales in 2020, of violating multiple Oregon consumer protection laws. These laws state that, essentially, "consumers are not required to spend hours doing online research in order to correct deception that is being put forth by a marketer’s pervasive marketing campaign, ” according to an article quoting Kelsey Eberly, a lawyer with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDS), which filed the class action lawsuit.
CFS has mounted an online petition titled "Be the Truth Tillamook: Say Goodbye to Mega-Dairies!" urging loyal consumers to tell Tillamook that "we have long believed your advertising about the source of your milk: family farms in Tillamook county, raising cows humanely on pasture, letting them roam free on rolling green hills."
The petition goes on to say "Tillamook claims to be the answer to Big Food and 'Dairy Done Right,' but in reality, the majority of the milk that goes into Tillamook dairy products, including the signature cheddar cheeses, comes from the nation’s largest industrial confinement mega-dairy in Eastern Oregon—quintessential 'Big Food.'" CFS is launching a concurrent social media campaign using the hashtags #BeTheTruthTillamook and #DumpDirtyDairy.
As of the time of this posting, the Tillamook County Creamery Association, the co-op behind the Tillamook brand, has not issued a comment on the boycott, nor has Threemile Canyon Farms, the mega-dairy that provides the bulk of its milk. Easterday Farms, a new 30,000-cow mega-dairy—it bought the failed Lost Valley Farm in Boardman—has applied for a permit to supply milk but is not yet in operation.
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."
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.
"As Oregonian as a lumberjack sharing a craft beer with a beaver, no one does cheese like Tillamook." - New Seasons sale flyer
Their packaging says "Thank you for buying Tillamook and keeping our family farms strong."
Since childhood I've been a fan of Tillamook cheese. Molten and gooey inside grilled cheese sandwiches, grated into mac and cheese and melted over just about anything you can think of, its bright orange hue has been a color theme weaving through my life. On trips to the coast my parents would stop the station wagon at the cheese factory to follow the steps that the milk took from liquid to curd to sliced chunks which were finally pressed into logs, aged and dipped in wax (now wrapped in plastic) to be displayed on refrigerated shelves.
On those same trips my parents would point out the cows munching grass in the brilliant green coastal pastures of Tillamook County, their pendulous udders swaying as they moved to the barns to be milked twice a day. "That's where our cheese comes from!" we'd think.
That's why it is with a heavy heart that I've finally decided to give up Tillamook cheese. It's not because the flavor has somehow fallen off of a cliff, or that I've discovered a better product—their extra sharp white cheddar had become our house cheese after my husband developed an intolerance to lactose. (Lactose is converted to lactic acid by cultures added to the cheese, and the longer it's aged, the less lactose remains.)
So why have I reached this decision?
It turns out that only a portion of the milk that is used by the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA)* to make their famous cheeses is produced by those cows munching that rich, coastal grass. Instead, Tillamook has partnered with Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman on the Columbia River, a factory farm that produces around 2 million pounds (that's 233,000 gallons, folks) of milk per day from 30,000 milk cows kept during the entirety of their short lives in confined barns. Add to that another 40,000 animals consisting of calves and "replacement heifers," young females that will be added to the milking herd at two years old.
An article in the Tillamook Headlight Herald from 2012, announcing layoffs of 50 employees doing packaging at the Tillamook processing facility—outsourced to companies in Utah and Idaho—quoted then-TCCA CEO Joe Rocha as saying that "all ice cream is made in Tillamook. Other Tillamook brand products, such as yogurt, butter and sour cream, are licensed products produced by other companies. All local milk is processed in Tillamook."
Tillamook has also built a large cheese processing facility, Columbia River Processing, near Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman that was designed to produce 58 million pounds of cheese a year at full operation. In 2014 it built a 64,000-square-foot expansion project to process whey, which is used in products like infant formula, performance nutrition products and products that "help manage some of the impacts of aging."
According to an article in the East Oregonian, the system is a "closed loop" where the milk cows "are loaded onto slowly rotating carousels where their udders are sprayed with a disinfectant and attached to automatic pumps. Each spin lasts just a few minutes before the cows are unloaded back where they started." The rest of the loop is made of the waste from the 70,000 animals—estimates are around 436 million gallons of liquid manure every year—that go into digesters and open lagoons that is then spread on fields of grain corn and triticale which is used to feed the cows or is made into animal bedding.
The manure spread on the fields is supposed to be carefully managed to avoid having the runoff pollute area groundwater, but an article on another proposed mega-dairy in the area, Lost Valley Farm, reports that it would add an additional 30,000 dairy cows and their waste to the already beleaguered groundwater system in the county. "The area is home to the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, where the level of nitrates in the groundwater already exceeds the federal safe drinking water standard," the article notes.
There are also concerns about air pollution, and groups like the Center for Food Safety, Friends of Family Farmers and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project are pushing for new rules to regulate air contaminant emissions (SB197) from large dairy operations. In 2007, Oregon exempted large-scale livestock operations from air-quality oversight, even though elevated concentrations of ammonia from Threemile Canyon Farms have been linked to acid deposits in the Columbia River Gorge, and nitrogen compounds are contributing to elevated levels of ozone in the vicinity of these operations.
The nail in the coffin was driven in, for me, when I started to look into what these mega-dairies were doing to Oregon's small, family-owned dairy farms. As Jon Bansen, a third-generation dairyman who is hoping to someday turn his farm over to his son, wrote in an editorial in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "when the last mega-dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms, came into Oregon, an average of nine family dairy farms went out of business per month between 2002 and 2007. Mega-dairies flood the market with milk, driving down milk prices and making it increasingly difficult for family farmers to stay afloat."
Mega-dairies also degrade the lives of local communities. Bansen goes on to say that "the ways in which family dairy farmers and mega-dairies contribute to a community are drastically different. When something breaks, family farmers typically buy parts from the local store. When their animals need veterinary attention, they call the local vet. They support their feed stores, tractor-supply stores and more. After a hard day on the farm, family farmers often engage in their community, schools, civic groups and churches." Employees at mega-dairies have neither the time nor the money to spend in their communities; equipment is bought from the cheapest (mostly non-local) sources; and profits are sent off to corporate, often out-of-state, offices.
So for all of these reasons I'm looking for a new, delicious source for my cheese, and I'll try to buy from small cheesemakers who source their milk from small, family farms. It'll no doubt be more expensive than the cheap-for-a-reason stuff, but I'm willing to spend a little more and use a little less if it helps to support local families and communities.
The Tillamook slogan is "Dairy Done Right." I disagree. How about you?
UPDATE: If I needed more assurance that my decision to stop buying Tillamook cheese was the right one, this past week the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environmental Quality both gave the go-ahead to Lost Valley Farm, a 30,000-cow mega-dairy in the Boardman area. A California-owned facility, Lost Valley joins North Dakota-based Threemile Canyon Farm in supplying milk that goes into making Tillamook cheese. According to a story in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "both dairies hold contracts with Boardman’s Columbia River Processing, which produces cheese for the Tillamook County Creamery Association, maker of Oregon’s famous Tillamook Cheese."
Lost Valley also had to gain the official approval of Morrow County's commissioners, although according to a story in the Oregonian, "the county [had] no legal way to stop what would be the state's second-largest dairy, and its three commissioners are deeply worried that it will sap already-limited groundwater from local farmers, and exacerbate water and air quality problems."
Since the county had no choice but to approve the facility despite deep misgivings, the article then asks, "that raises a crucial question for a coalition composed of local and federal government agencies, small farm advocates and environmental organizations: Are Oregon's rules for mega-dairies and livestock feedlots too loose?"
Ivan Maluski, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers, thinks so. "We've been warning for some time that Oregon's rules are too weak, and we're in danger of being a big factory farm state," he was quoted as saying. (Read an extended version of this update.)
UPDATE: As if I needed any more reinforcement of my decision to quit buying Tillamook products, a massive dairy sewage spill—more than 190,000 gallons—that flooded neighboring properties and entered the water systems that eventually run into Tillamook Bay has closed the bay to commercial shellfish production, according to an article in the Salem Statesman-Journal. This is the third time in the last month that dairy sewage has spilled from storage tanks or drainage ponds and caused fecal coliform readings hundreds of times higher than the standard allows. These leaks have been the subject of lawsuits on the part of local fish and shellfish operators, who often have to shut down for weeks or months twice a year during rainy periods when flooding can occur. The economic impact of this latest spill to individual fishing families and shellfish operators has not been estimated, but the cumulative effect of the shutdowns and spills to local fishing and farming communities over the years cannot be underestimated.
UPDATE: My article for Edible Portland on the dairies that supply milk to Tillamook, titled "Big Milk: Big Issues for Local Communities," expands on the topic of industrial agriculture's creeping influence in Oregon, challenging long-held traditions of our state’s agriculture as one based on small, family-scale farms.
UPDATE: Lost Valley Farm, mentioned above and one of the Boardman-area factory farms supplying milk to Tillamook, has been the subject of intense scrutiny due to owner Greg te Velde defaulting on loans, getting arrested in a prostitution sting operation and possessing meth, and a history of failure to maintain the standards set out in the facility's state permit. Read that story here.
* I contacted the Tillamook County Creamery Association Consumer Relations department for this post and was told they could not comment on the facts referenced in this post because "production numbers like the kind you are seeking are not figures that we generally share with the public."