Pesticide Contaminates Organic Compost, State Issues Warning

The website for Dean's (formerly Dean Innovations) describes its White Lightning compost as "ideal for organic gardening," stating it contains "worm castings, mycorrhizal fungi, mineral dust, topsoil, fruit and veggie compost, dairy manure compost, mushroom compost, river sand and horticultural pumice."

Residential customers who bought the popular compost for their gardens this year were shocked to learn it also contains pesticides.

Curled leaves can be an indication of pesticide contamination.

In a press release this past week, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) said it had received several complaints reporting growth deformities in plants that came into contact with the product. After collecting samples from home gardeners, Dean's and another company, McFarlane's Bark, samples were sent to a lab for analysis. Results were returned showing the compost was contaminated with clopyralid, an herbicide used to control broadleaf weeds like thistles and clover.

The ODA report says that clopyralid can cause symptoms in plants at very low levels and only affects certain groups of plants, including legumes (peas, beans, lupine), composites (sunflowers, marigolds, lettuce), nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers), and buckwheat. It is considered very low toxicity if ingested and very low toxicity via skin exposure.

Suki Olson of Northeast Portland, who used the compost in her raised beds, noticed slower-than-usual germination from her seeds. Then, when the plants finally emerged, she noticed many of the leaves didn't have their usual shape or texture.

Contaminated plants may have bumpy, leathery leaves.

"The fifth and sixth leaves of my beets look bumpy and leathery, which I thought was strange," she said. "I didn’t think much of it, chalking it up to a weird spring of rain and cold and then hot." But then the heirloom peas she planted had leaves that were misshapen and badly cupped.

"I checked with my neighbors, since we'd shared the delivery of [compost]," she said. "One’s hydrangea leaves were buckled and asymmetrical. The other’s decade-old grapevine had terribly dramatic cupping of its new leaves, and one of her tomatoes showed the same cupping."

The president of Dean's released a statement saying the two products that clopyralid was found in were a batch of steer manure and a batch of mushroom compost, according to an article from KOIN news. The article said that both products have been pulled from the shelves and the company was in the process of seeking out "new organic supplier relationships" as well as "alternative nutrient supplements for our White Lightning product should we continue to find disparities between an organically certified product and test results that are contrary to this certification."

Dean's compost tested positive for pesticide contamination.

Dean's has offered to refund the cost of the compost itself, but has not discussed remediation of contaminated soil. A private Facebook group has formed for customers who have experienced damage from the contaminated compost. Group moderator Lindsay Freedman said that the group is exploring legal options for customers who experienced damage, since soil testing can cost upwards of $250 and digging out contaminated soil can run into the thousands of dollars.

An additional complication is that many labs can't test levels below 10 parts per million, and clopyralid can damage plants at just one or two parts per billion. One way to test the soil for contaminants is to do a bioassay by planting fast-emerging seeds that are sensitive to the contaminant in the soil. (Here's a how-to video.) 

In the meantime, customers affected by the contamination are wondering what to do about the vegetables and fruit they've planted in their gardens.

"Our main concern now is, is our food edible?" homeowner Olson said. "Brassicas don’t seem to be affected, but are they safe to eat? And what is the best way to remediate? Because if there is herbicide in all the yards of compost that Dean’s and other companies delivered in the last few months, it’s not environmentally sound to dump all of this in the landfill and wash our hands of the matter. My goal is to work with nature to heal the soil, and get back to what I love, growing food for my family."


The US Composting Council is working to stop the use of persistent herbicides in ways that impact compost and needs to understand how widespread the occurrences are. If you suspect the presence of persistent herbicides in compost or damage from persistent herbicides in compost please complete this form.


The ODA has these suggestions for homeowners who believe they may have experienced contamination:

  • Community members can contact the business where the soil was purchased to find out what options may be available.
  • Those affected may submit a Report of Loss (ROL) form to ODA. The submission of the ROL reserves the citizen’s right to pursue civil action if they wish to do so. Filing the ROL report does not mean that one has filed a claim, as that would need to be done in a civil suit, but it is a step that must be done if a party chooses to pursue civil action.
  • One option for gardeners is to avoid using the soil for several months to allow the clopyralid to break down. Then, before using the soil, gardeners can test it by planting susceptible plants and watch for effects.
  • If the soil is removed and in order to avoid further contamination, soils that are believed to be contaminated should NOT be taken to your local compost or yard debris facility. These soils can be disposed of at the locations below. Please inform the facility that this soil is thought to be contaminated: Metro South in Oregon City, 503-234-3000 for hours, pricing, and additional information; Hillsboro Landfill, 503-640-9427 extension 0, for hours, pricing, and additional information.
  • Unfortunately, there is not any financial assistance available from ODA to help pay for the removal of the contaminated soil. However, ongoing discussions with partner agencies on financial assistance options are currently being discussed and will be shared if they become available.

Your Food, Your Legislature: Take Action to Protect Oregon from Invasive Canola

Canola has a long and sordid history in Oregon going back to 1990, when it was designated as a controlled crop with strict regulations on where it could be grown in the Willamette Valley, because of its habit of cross-pollinating with other crops. And ever since, producers have come back again and again to try to expand the restrictions on its production.

Canola field in Boardman, Oregon.

On July 1, current rules that cap annual canola production at 500 acres in the Willamette Valley expire, and—suprise, surprise—once again canola producers are attempting to roll back that restriction. The Oregon Legislature is considering SB 885, a bill that would maintain the current 500 acre per year cap indefinitely.

Meanwhile, according to Ivan Maluski, Policy director of Friends of Family Farmers, the ODA has announced a newly proposed rule to replace current expiring canola restrictions. "This draft proposal simply falls short of what is necessary to protect the unique attributes of the Willamette Valley’s specialty seed industry," Maluski writes. "ODA’s proposal includes no acreage cap, doesn’t explicitly prohibit canola production in a proposed Isolation Area, doesn’t prohibit herbicide tolerant or genetically engineered canola varieties, and leaves large parts of the Willamette Valley unprotected."

What can you do about it? You can e-mail your legislators and tell them to maintain the current restrictions as outlined in SB 885 (sample letter at bottom). You can also submit e-mail comments on the ODA canola rule by Friday, June 21 at 5 pm (sample text at bottom; written comments can be sent to Sunny Summers, Oregon Department of Agriculture, 635 Capitol St. NE, Salem, OR 97301).

Canola blossom.

Why should you bother? Here's what I wrote in 2012:

"The Willamette River, from its headwaters in the Calapooya Mountains outside of Eugene to its confluence with the Columbia north of Portland, forms the base of a long narrow valley that not only contains 70% of the state's population, it's also Oregon's most fertile agricultural area. Averaging only 25 miles wide, the valley's rich volcanic and glacial soil was deposited here by ancient Ice Age flooding and can be half a mile deep in some areas.

"Orchards, vineyards and farmland vie with urban areas for space in its narrow confines, and some crops have been tightly controlled to prevent problems with cross-pollination from the distribution of pollen by the wind, water and dust churned up by traffic along its length. Canola, also known as rapeseed, has been one of those controlled crops and has been regulated in Oregon since 1990.

"Because it is a member of the Brassica family (Brassica napus, B. rapa and B. juncea), it can cross-pollinate with with similar brassicas like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and turnips, endangering these valley crops and the farmers who depend on them for their livelihoods. With the bulk of the domestic canola crop also contaminated with GMOs (approx. 93%), this presents a particular threat to organic farmers and seed producers, since current USDA Organic guidelines do not allow for genetically engineered material."

Canola cross-pollinates with many vegetable crops.

The Oregon Dept. of Agriculture (ODA) issued a temporary ruling in 2012 to allow planting of the crop in certain formerly protected areas, prompting Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF), the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and three Willamette Valley specialty seed producers to file suit to stop the ruling from taking effect. As a result, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the ODA's action, whereupon the ODA filed for a permanent ruling to allow growing of canola, prompting the legislature to pass a ban on the production of canola in most of the valley through 2018. Unfortunately, in 2015 a handful of canola growers unhappy with the previous bill pushed through HB 3382, which authorized 500 acres of commercial canola production per year from 2016 through July of 2019.

What all this means that if you care about being able to buy locally grown, organic, non-GMO produce at the farmers' market or greengrocer's, it would behoove you to write your legislators and submit a comment to the ODA. I've made it simple to do by supplying suggested text (below) that you can copy and paste into your e-mails or letters. (Thanks to FoFF for supplying bullet points).


(Find your legislator here.)

Dear [legislator],

I am writing to urge you to support SB 885. We must maintain current restrictions on Willamette Valley canola production that expire July 1 in order to protect the region’s important specialty seed industry and the hundreds of farmers, gardeners, and food producers who depend on it.

Thank you,

[your name and address]


(Here's the ODA's e-mail address.)

Dear Director Taylor:

I am writing because the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s draft proposal to address the risks from canola production falls far short of what is necessary to protect the unique attributes of Oregon’s world-renowned specialty seed industry.

I oppose the draft rule because it includes no acreage cap, doesn’t prohibit canola inside the proposed Isolation Area, doesn’t prohibit herbicide tolerant or genetically engineered canola varieties, and leaves many Willamette Valley farmers unprotected from the risks associated with canola.

The final rule should include: an acreage cap not to exceed 500 acres per year inside the Willamette Valley Protected District; a clear prohibition on canola production inside the proposed Isolation Area; a larger Isolation Area where no production of canola would be allowed; clear protections for seed farmers outside the proposed Isolation Area; and a clear prohibition on growing herbicide tolerant or genetically engineered varieties of canola.

Thank you,

[your name and address]

Make a Difference in Our Food System: Join a Commodity Commission!

Love West Coast albacore? Passionate about beer? Want to do something to change Oregon's food system for the better? If you care about where your food comes from and how it's produced, please consider joining one of Oregon's commodity crop commissions. Most include a member of the public, so check out this list of the positions available and make a difference in our food system!

Oregon albacore.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is recruiting for 63 commodity commissions, with a deadline to apply on May 10, 2019. Oregon’s 23 grower-funded commodity commissions support promotion, research and education to improve market conditions for their commodity. A key point: they also give industry members direct access to key Oregon agricultural opinion leaders and decision makers.

Hood strawberries.

Each commission has a board that includes producer and handler positions. Producers grow or harvest the commodity; handlers are the first to purchase the commodity from the producer and often are processors, distributors, or marketers. And most commissions also include a member of the public. (The dairy commission has a public member position available…just sayin'.)

Time commitment varies depending on the commission, but can be from four to 10 times a year, and phone participation is a possibility. Meetings generally last two hours, but can sometimes be as long as two days, with some expenses reimbursed. For more information, e-mail Kris Anderson. You can make a difference!

Click to see the list and apply.

Update on Tillamook's Mega-Dairy Suppliers

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

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

Tillamook's Boardman processing plant.

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

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

Lost Valley Farm began construction before obtaining needed permits.

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

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

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

Animal sewage drains from barns at Threemile Canyon Farms.

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

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

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


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


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