"We publish one or more thought-provoking and breaking news stories each day of the week. We’re on track to publish 250 articles in 2019; below are 20 of our best, in chronological order, and chosen to showcase the breadth and depth of our reporting."
With that announcement from Civil Eats' founder and editor-in-chief Naomi Starkman, I found out I was included on a list of the top twenty stories the prestigious national food news outlet published in 2019.
My profile of fourth-generation Oregon rancher Cory Carman outlines a movement taking place across the country where small farmers and ranchers are working to build a sustainable business, improve their soil and the health of the planet through pasture-based, regenerative practices. It was thrilling, as it always is, to talk with someone so articulate and passionate about what they're achieving, as well as to hear about the struggles and challenges of going against the prevailing "get big or get out" mentality that pervades current agricultural policy.
"The push is always for any brand to go national," [Carman] said. "Instead, we need to think about production on a regional basis and build out and support appropriately scaled infrastructure. That’s where you can really have the magic."
I'm honored to have my work included on this list along with some of my food journalism heroes. Read the full story, and please consider supporting the work of Civil Eats to tell the stories of what our food system could be, along with the challenges we face in getting there.
The Library of Congress, which officially serves the U.S. Congress and is the de facto national library of the U.S., is the oldest federal cultural institution in the country and preserves important “cultural artifacts” by providing permanent public access to them. It has selected Civil Eats, an online news source for critical thought about the American food system, for inclusion in the Library’s historic collection of Internet materials related to the Food and Foodways Web Archive.
Which means that the articles I've written for Civil Eats about the food system of the Pacific Northwest—profiling farmers, ranchers and labor activists, and covering farmers' markets, industrial agriculture and other issues—will be included in this permanent archive along with the work of many of my food journalism heroes.
A ferocious organizer and labor activist for more than 30 years, Guillen founded Community to Community Development in Washington, a group led by women of color fighting for better farm-working conditions.
The phone rang at the grassroots food justice organization in Rosalinda Guillen’s office at Community to Community Development (C2C) in Bellingham, Washington, in August 2017. The person on the line said a group of 70 farmworkers was walking down the road leading away from Sarbanand Farms, a large, corporate-owned blueberry farm in the area.
Farmworker justice leader Rosalinda Guillen, the executive director of C2C, soon arrived on site with her staff to find that the men had been fired for complaining about mistreatment after the death of one of their fellow workers, 28-year-old Honesto Silva Ibarra. Silva Ibarra had died of dehydration from being forced to work 12- to 14-hour days in the hot, smoky conditions caused by fires that were sweeping through the region that summer.
Because the men had been fired, they had lost their visa status and would be considered undocumented. C2C immediately set up an encampment for the men and put out the word to the local community.
“We had an amazing outpouring of support,” Guillen said. “People brought money, food, tents, chairs, sleeping bags. Doctors and nurses volunteered to check the workers out. They appeared with cars and vans to drive them to the clinic, to the hospitals.”
A ferocious organizer and labor activist for more than 30 years, Guillen, now 68, founded C2C as an organization led by women of color, a place-based, grassroots organization committed to strengthen local and global movements toward social, economic, and environmental justice.
In 1995, Guillen won the first-ever farmworkers’ collective bargaining agreement in the state of Washington with Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery after helping to organize its workers and after an eight-year boycott of its wines. Previously, she organized strawberry workers for the United Farm Workers (UFW) in California, eventually serving as political and legislative vice president of the union’s executive board.
“I’ve always appreciated that Rosalinda can speak to the nuances and complexities of a just agriculture system, knowing that not everyone sees the same path forward,” said Kerstin Lindgren, a strategic organizing researcher at Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “But [she] doesn’t lose sight of a vision for justice that is more broadly shared.”
In the case of the terminated blueberry pickers, C2C helped educate the community about what had happened by using live feeds on Facebook and protests at state agencies. It held community forums where the farmworkers testified about their experience, medical workers talked about what extreme dehydration looks like, and staff from farmworker justice organizations explained the H-2A program—a visa allowing a foreign national to enter the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work.
“People saw it—they saw what happened,” Guillen said.
The attention enabled C2C and a coalition of other organizations to introduce Senate Bill 5438 in the Washington legislature, which would create a state Office of H-2A Compliance and Farm Labor to provide oversight and monitoring of the H-2A program in the state. The bill passed in May and will take effect at the end of July.
“Community to Community has made my life real,” said Modesto Hernandez, a farmworker and member of C2C, who had suffered devastating personal injury, losing his feet to frostbite from unsafe working conditions, as well as experiencing discrimination. “Without their support I would not be able to think positively about my future. Now I know that I have the ability to take care of myself, I don’t need charity—I need fairness, and C2C has shown me how to raise my voice and get people and agencies to be fair.”
Destiny Comes Knocking
Guillen and her seven siblings grew up living in migrant labor camps following her father, a farmworker from Mexico, on the migrant circuit around the United States. Despite this fact, at the age of 37, Rosalinda Guillen had never heard of Cesar Chavez.
But on the day Anne Atkeson, a recruiter for the Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, knocked on Guillen’s door in rural Whatcom County, Washington, Guillen was living on a chicken ranch with three sons while working as the manager of data processing at Skagit State Bank. It was the third time that Atkeson had appeared on Guillen’s doorstep, desperate to find a person of color to help with local organizing for Jackson’s campaign.
“I honestly was not even registered to vote at the time,” Guillen said. But something about Atkeson’s persistence made Guillen invite her in. “I figured I’d let her talk 15 minutes, then she can leave and leave me alone.”
“But the minute [Atkeson] said, ‘What do you think about the United States having a Black president in the White House?’ those words were like a whip or something,” she recalled. “I looked at her and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
The idea of a Black president resonated with Guillen, she said, because for her and many others, being a farmworker in virtually all-white rural Washington meant being treated as a second-class citizen as well as experiencing outright racism, unequal treatment, and disrespect.
She registered to vote and started going to campaign meetings, eventually running for—and winning—election as a precinct committee officer where she brought in the rural Democratic Party Caucus for Jesse Jackson.
“I loved it,” Guillen said of her work registering voters and distributing literature. “It was so invigorating talking about democracy and the Constitution and racism and Jesse Jackson and opportunities for people of color. I didn’t know this world existed. I was infused with a whole new identity. That’s where I learned about Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement.”
I also contributed a review to this collection, of an engaging book from first-time author Stephany Wilkes called Raw Material: Working Wool in the West(top photo) that describes her transition from high tech executive in Silicon Valley to itinerant sheep shearer in the American West. My review said, in part, that she "brings to life the cast of the interesting characters and ornery sheep she encounters on her journey to understand the ranchers and the land they steward, and [to] discover the terroir of wool."
This is my second contribution to Civil Eats' monthly series of profiles of farmers and ranchers who are changing our food system for the benefit of our communities, our health and the environment.
Fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman holistically manages 5,000-acres which serve as a model for sustainable meat operations in the Pacific Northwest.
When Cory Carman returned in 2003 to her family’s ranch in remote Wallowa County in eastern Oregon with a Stanford degree in public policy in hand and a stint on Capitol Hill under her belt, her intention was to stay for the summer, helping her uncle and grandmother with ranch work while she looked for her next job working on public policy. By that fall, though, it was obvious that if she left, the ranch wouldn’t be there for her to come back to.
“They were the only ones left on the ranch,” she said, recalling the heartbreaking specter of how hard her uncle and her grandmother, who was then in her 80s, had to work to barely scrape by. “I think I felt the weight of what they were trying to hold together, and I thought how unfair it was for me to expect that they could just keep it together until I came back someday.”
So she decided to stay.
Carman Ranch began as a few hundred acres Carman’s great-great-grandfather Jacob Weinhard—nephew to the legendary Northwest beer brewer Henry Weinhard—bought for his son Fritz in the early 1900s. Under Carman’s watch, the operation now spans 5,000 acres of grasslands, timbered rangeland, and irrigated valley ground nestled against the dramatic peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. Hawks, eagles, and wildlife greatly outnumber people in this isolated northeastern corner of the state, originally home to the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of the Nez Perce tribe.
Distinct from most cattle operations in the U.S., Carman’s cattle are 100 percent grass-fed well as grass-finished. (The term “grass-fed” is not regulated, so it can mean that animals have only been briefly pastured before they’re sent to a factory feedlot to be finished.) The ranch primarily produces cattle and pigs, which it mostly markets to wholesale accounts, though it sells a lesser amount of meat as “cow shares”—or quarters of beef ranging from 120 to 180 pounds purchased directly by consumers.
Equally if not more important to Carman, however, is the focus on what she calls the “holistic management” of her land. This involves constantly moving the cattle and paying careful attention to the rate of growth of the animals and grasses. By this system, the steers select the forages they need to grow and gain weight, and the grasses get clipped, trampled down, and fertilized with manure, resulting in fields that are vibrant—they retain water, resist drought, contain abundant organic matter, which contributes nutrients and carbon, and are highly productive without the addition of fertilizer.
Amanda Oborne, vice president of food and farms at Ecotrust, a regional nonprofit organization working on social, economic, and environmental issues, said Carman inspired Ecotrust’s food system work by helping her understand the challenges of creating local beef and pork markets, the complexity of scaling an agricultural business with integrity, and the importance of grasslands and large grazing animals in fighting climate change through carbon drawdown.
Oborne remembers Carman walking her around the fields of the Zumwalt Prairie, a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy that is on the western boundary of the ranch, and picking at blades of bunch grass as she explained how the native species create pockets of nutrition for migrating birds through the winter, and how the long, perennial roots scaffold a whole cathedral of structure and life under the soil.
“It’s Cory’s ability to tell these stories, to explain the flaws of the dominant system without imbuing judgement or animosity, and to partner across every divide—be it age, gender, class, political philosophy, or hometown—that makes her such an effective and innovative thought leader,” Oborne said.
Introducing Holistic Management
Within a year of returning to the ranch, Carman met and married her husband, Dave Flynn (the couple have since divorced), and started a family, which includes three children, Roan and twins Ione and Emmett.
With a fifth generation of the family living on the ranch, the challenge became not just figuring out how to maintain her family’s business and regenerate the land, but how to leave a viable legacy to pass on to her children.
“You don’t have a ranch so that you can sell it and retire; you have a ranch so you can pass it on—that’s sort of in the DNA,” Carman said. “It’s what gets priority, and [you] grow up knowing that there’s something more important than all of you as individuals.”
While Carman respects her family’s history and that of her neighbors, she is pursuing the inverse of the methods used on most of the nation’s cattle ranches since the middle of the last century—methods also used by her father, who died in a ranching accident when Carman was 14, and by her uncle who took over.
“It was the fertilizer era,” Carman noted of her uncle’s initial resistance to the idea of leaving forage in the pastures. “It’s like in those first few decades when fertilizer worked really, really well. You could just take everything off of the land that you could possibly grow and sell it—and then pour more fertilizer back on. And it worked. Until it didn’t.”
With an eye toward her legacy, Carman went to her uncle with the idea of raising grass-fed beef. “I will never forget what he told me,” she said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do something people like? What about jerky?’”
The thing that she knew—and that her uncle didn’t—was that there were people in more urban areas who were willing to pay a premium for healthy food. “He had no context,” Carman said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”
While Carman had been around cattle her whole life—and the animals she is raising are direct descendants of the Herefords Weinhard originally brought to the ranch—she had no idea how to finish the animals on grass, since much of that knowledge had been lost in the industry’s rush to finish cattle faster on grain in feedlots.
Carman began to research and implement a practice called holistic management, which is based on the idea that grass is your crop, and a portion of it needs to go back into feeding the land and the soil microbes. A tool of regenerative agriculture, holistic management integrates social, economic, and environmental factors to help the farm or ranch succeed economically, improve the health of the land, and provide local communities more nutritious food.
“Our neighbors are still grazing [their pastures] into the ground with this idea that if you’re not grazing it, you’re wasting it,” Carman said. “For us, that is our nutrient base that we’re putting back into the ground. We’re going to get more productivity by leaving more behind.”
As for her uncle’s reaction to the changes he’s seen since she came back 15 years ago? Carman said he’s now her biggest fan.
“If you come to the ranch, he’ll say, ‘You would not believe the root systems in these grasses,’” she said. “He didn’t see the vision [before], and now I think he does.”
Blazing a Trail Toward a Robust Regional Food Economy
Initially Carman and her husband sold beef in shares, where customers would commit to buying a half, quarter, or eighth of a carcass. They were eventually joined by a neighbor in Wallowa, fellow grass-fed beef rancher Jill McClaran of McClaran Ranch, and they were able to start supplying wholesale clients including Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland, and Bon Appétit Management Company (an on-site restaurant company, since acquired by London-based Compass Group).
“We slowly started building up this little business,” Carman said. “We raised cattle, finished them on grass, processed them, owned the meat, arranged for distribution through different entities to get the meat out, and then we froze it. It was super tight, but we were kind of scraping by.”
After a customer chipped a tooth on a piece of bone that made it through the grinder at the processing plant and sued, Carman created two LLCs to reduce her liability. Then she took on investors in 2017 to expand her reach. The additional capital allowed Carman to work with larger wholesale accounts such as New Seasons Market, a chain of West Coast grocery stores. Working with a core group of six like-minded producers with ranches from Oregon to Nevada, she is able to supply meat year-round.
“Our purpose in the world is to prove out this model where you can do it the right way,” Carman said of her producers, who agree that building soil is a primary focus, “with layers of values that we’re living toward.”
A woman in the male-dominated field of ranching, Carman notes that women constitute much of her team: she employs a woman ranch manager and director of business development; she has partnered with other women ranchers like McClaran to supply wholesale clients; women serve on the Carman Ranch board and comprise half her investors; and she considers women to be among her most innovative customers.
The model Carman has built so far has already proved an inspiration to other Northwest producers looking to scale up their businesses. Ecotrust’s Oborne said that much of what the nonprofit built at the Redd on Salmon Street, a development designed to support local food enterprises and scale a more robust regional food economy, was based on the work Carman has done.
“Many other regenerative farms and ranches in rural Oregon and Washington are now following in her footsteps and building their businesses in the Pacific Northwest thanks to the trail Cory has blazed,” Oborne said.
Hillary Barbour, director of strategic initiatives for Burgerville, a restaurant chain based in the Pacific Northwest, said its journey with Carman began in a pasture on Carman’s property, when she pulled a chunk of cover crop from the ground, held it triumphantly above her head, and said, “You see, we’re soil farmers!”
Barbour said her company believes Carman’s commitment to soil, human and animal health, and maximizing the value of production for the regional economy aligned with Burgerville’s vision for the future, cementing the relationship going forward.
Beef That Brings It All Together
Calling grass-fed beef “an elegant nexus of all of the issues,” Carman believes that cattle are a necessary component of fertility for every cropping system. That’s because the bacteria in the rumen of the cattle makes what she refers to as “the soil/food web” more vibrant. When we harvest the cattle, we harvest the micronutrients out of the soil, she said.
“The soil/food web needs to be totally functional to get the micronutrients, [and] that’s what we’re missing in our food right now,” she said.
It’s not only that there’s a better fatty acid profile in grass-fed beef, Carman said of studies showing that grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). She points to what she calls the human health epidemic of chronic illness and disease, believing that it’s related to how incredibly degraded the soil is from overuse of fertilizers and other industrial practices.
Saying that grass-fed beef is an important catalyst that brings farmers and ranchers together, Carman feels that it’s a place to start the conversation about regenerative agriculture and rebuilding the food system.
“The push is always for any brand to go national,” she said. “Instead, we need to think about production on a regional basis and build out and support appropriately scaled infrastructure. That’s where you can really have the magic.
“Those are all the things we’re trying to prove out with our little model.”
Meet Jon Bansen, a pasture-based dairyman in Oregon's Willamette Valley, in this profile I wrote for Civil Eats' Farmer of the Month series.
Fourth-generation farmer Jon Bansen translates complex grazing production systems into common-sense farm wisdom.
In the U.S., the dairy industry is a tough business for organic and conventional producers alike, with plunging prices and changing consumer demand leading to a spate of farm shutdowns and even farmer suicides. And in Oregon, where dairy is big business—accounting for 10 percent of the state’s agriculture income in 2016—the story is much the same.
But Jon Bansen, who has farmed since 1991 at Double J Jerseys, an organic dairy farm in Monmouth, Oregon, has throughout his career bucked conventional wisdom and demonstrated the promise of his practices. Now he’s convincing others to follow suit.
Bansen and his wife Juli bought their farm in 1991 and named it Double J Jerseys, then earned organic certification in 2000. In 2017, he switched to full-time grass feed for his herd of 200 cows and 150 young female cows, called heifers. He convinced his brother Bob, who owns a dairy in Yamhill, to convert to organic. His brother Pete followed suit soon after. (“He’s a slow learner, that’s all I can say,” Bansen joked.)
He’s someone who prefers to lead by example, which has earned him the respect of a broad range of the region’s farmers and ranchers, as well as its agricultural agencies and nonprofits.
“Jon is an articulate spokesperson for organic dairy in Oregon and beyond,” said Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, an organic certifying organization. “His passion for organic dairy and pasture-based systems is contagious, and he does a great job of translating complex grazing production systems into common-sense farmer wisdom. His personal experience … is a compelling case for other dairy farmers to consider.”
George Siemon, one of the founders of Organic Valley, the dairy co-operative for which Bansen produces 100 percent grass-fed milk under Organic Valley’s “Grassmilk” brand, believes the switch to 100 percent grass is a direction that Bansen has been moving in all along.
“He’s just refined and refined and refined his organic methods,” said Siemon, admitting that Bansen is one of his favorite farmers. “He’s transformed his whole farm. It’s a great case when the marketplace is rewarding him for getting better and better at what he does and what he likes to do.”
Deep Roots in Dairy Farming
Dairy farming is baked into Bansen’s DNA, with roots tracing all the way back to his great-grandfather, who emigrated from Denmark in the late 1800s, settling in a community of Danes in Northern California. His grandfather followed in the early 1900s, hiring out his milking skills to other farmers until he saved enough to buy his own small farm near the bucolic coastal town of Ferndale in Humboldt County.
Bansen was about 10 years old when his father and their family left the home farm to strike out on their own in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. They bought land in the tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Yamhill, about an hour southwest of Portland.
A typical farm kid, Bansen and his seven siblings were all expected to help with the chores. “You fed calves before you went to school, and you came home and dinked around the house eating for awhile until you heard Dad’s voice beller at you that it was time to get back to work,” Bansen recalled. “I was a little envious of kids that lived in town and got to ride their bikes on pavement. That sounded pretty sexy to me.”
After studying biology in college in Nebraska and getting married soon after graduating, Bansen and his wife worked on his dad’s Yamhill farm for five years and then began talking about getting a place of their own. They found property not far away outside the sleepy town of Monmouth. It had the nutritionally rich, green pastures Bansen knew were ideal for dairy cows, fed by the coastal mists that drift over the Coast Range from the nearby Pacific Ocean.
One day, a few years after they’d started Double J Jerseys, a man knocked on their door. He said he was from a small organic dairy co-op in Wisconsin that was looking to expand nationally. He wondered if Double J would be interested in transitioning to organic production, mentioning that the co-op could guarantee a stable price for their milk.
It turned out that the stranger was Siemon, a self-described “long-haired hippie” who’d heard about Bansen through word of mouth. “He was reasonably skeptical,” recalls Siemon. “He wanted to make sure it was a valid market before he committed, because it’s such a big commitment to go all the way with organic dairy.”
For his part, Bansen worried that there wasn’t an established agricultural infrastructure to support the transition, not to mention the maintenance of an organic farm. “I was worried about finding enough organic grain,” he said.
On the other hand, however, the young couple needed the money an organic certification might bring. “We had $30,000 to our name and we were more than half a million dollars in debt” from borrowing to start the farm, Bansen said.
After much research and soul-searching, they decided to accept Siemon’s offer and started the transition process. It helped that his cousin Dan had transitioned one of his farms to organic not long before and that generations of his family before him had run pasture-based dairies.
“My grandfather, he was an organic dairy farmer, he just didn’t know what it was called,” Bansen said. “There were no antibiotics, no hormones, no pesticides. You fed your cows in the fields.”
The Organic Learning Curve
During the Bansens’ first organic years, they had to figure out ways to eliminate antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides—all of which Bansen views as “crutches” to deal with management issues.
To prevent coccidiosis, a condition baby cows develop when they don’t receive enough milk and are forced to live in overcrowded conditions, for example, Bansen fed his calves plenty of milk and made sure they had enough space.
To prevent cows from contracting mastitis, an infection of the mammary system, he changed the farm’s milking methods.
Another learning curve had to do with figuring out the balance of grain to forage (i.e., edible plants). Originally Bansen fed each of his cows 20 pounds of grain per day, but after switching to organic sources of grain, he was able to reduce that to four or five pounds a day. This switch cut down grain and transportation costs dramatically.
He also had to learn to manage the plants in the fields in order to produce the healthiest grazing material possible. Since the transition to organic, Double J has grown to nearly 600 acres, a combination of pastures for the milking cows, fields for growing the grass and forage he stores for winter, when it’s too cold and wet to keep the animals outdoors.
“It’s not a machine; it’s a constant dance between what you’re planting and growing and the weather patterns and how the cows are reacting to it,” said Bansen. “There’s science involved in it, but it’s more of an art form.”
Read the rest of the article and find out why Bansen made the decision to transition to a grass diet for his cows, and why he's "sick of farmers bitching about the price of milk and [then] going down to Walmart to buy groceries and taking their kids out to McDonald’s. You have no right to bitch about what’s going on in your marketplace if you’re not supporting that same marketplace."
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.