Your Food, Your Legislature: Mega-Dairy Moratorium, Biogas, Organic Plan on Tap

The Oregon Legislature convened its 81st session on January 11 of this year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the session will be held remotely with public hearings in both chambers done over videoconference. Governor Brown and the leadership of the House and Senate are planning to focus on the state's response to the COVID pandemic, addressing the damage from the climate change-related wildfires last year and the danger they present in the future, as well as dealing with the usual budget issues.

With all that, there are still bills dealing with Oregon's food system that are on tap for consideration. Here's an abbreviated list of what's coming up:

A moratorium on mega-dairies will be a hot topic this session.

A moratorium on permits for industrial mega-dairies (HB 2924, SB 583): Put forward by Rep. Rob Nosse (D-42) and Senator Michael Dembrow (D-23), these bills temporarily prohibit the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) from issuing a permit to construct or operate any new industrial dairy, or to expand on an existing industrial dairy. "The moratorium would allow a pause in the permitting of new and expanding mega-dairies until meaningful protections can be enacted to protect Oregon’s air, water, climate, rural communities, small farmers and animal welfare," according to a statement from a coalition of community, farm, environmental and social justice organizations. One of those, Food and Water Watch, is encouraging citizens to sign a letter asking their legislators to co-sponsor the bills. For more information, watch a panel discussion on the topic.

Oregon Organic Action Plan (HB 2269SB 404): Increases funding to the Oregon State University Extension Service for new positions related to organic production as well as funding for expanding the market for organic crops and products. 

Meat processing facilities are critical for a robust food system.

Grant program to increase meat processing capacity (HB 2785): Establishes a grant program to fund upgrades to establishments under a program of state meat inspection. "So many of our [local] meat producers have been negatively impacted by Oregon’s lack of processing capacity," according to Amy Wong, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers. Oregon has lost several small processing facilities in the two years, crippling local farms and ranches who need to bring their animals to market. She said this program would build "infrastructure and hopefully technical assistance for bringing existing, and potentially new, processing facilities up to standards compliance." Read about the importance of access to local meat processing to Oregon growers.

Funding for Double Up Food Bucks program (HB 2292SB 440, SB 555): Continuation of funding to assist recipients of supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets, farm share sites and retail outlets that participate in program.

Manure digesters aren't the panacea they're cracked up to be.

Renewal of the Bovine Tax Credit (HB 2451, SB 151): A bovine manure tax credit gives taxpayer money via tax credits to industrial facilities like feedlots and mega-dairies that have methane digesters for the production of biofuels. The problem is, as outlined in an issue brief from Food and Water Watch, "despite claims that digesters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, burning biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants including smog-forming nitrogen oxides, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, potentially offsetting other greenhouse gas reductions." Additionally, less than half of methane emissions from an industrial agricultural facility are actually captured by digesters. In addition, digesters, because they are heavily incentivized and subsidized, actually spur the expansion of these kinds of industrial facilities, according to Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for Food and Water Watch. She said they presents a false solution that doesn't address the underlying problem of methane emissions. Needless to say, consumer and watchdog organizations will be active in making sure this bill does not make it onto the floor for a vote.

Stay tuned for future installments in the 2021 Your Food, Your Legislature series as the legislative sausage gets made this session!

Farm Bulletin: Response to a Reader

Under normal circumstances I don't post reader comments, but in this case I felt contributor Anthony Boutard's response to the question about short-straw grains, from his previous post about the durum wheat he grows at Ayers Creek Farm, was important to understanding the whole story.

A reader commented:

I read a book recently that said the short straw varieties were specifically developed for warm climates like Mexico and India where rust is a serious problem. In your climate I'm guessing it's a wash.

Anthony Boutard responded:

Often the second half of a story is left out to create a myth, this is especially true with respect to the “Green Revolution.”* Short-straw grains allow fungicidal sprays to penetrate into the planting more effectively, and that is one of the reasons they are favored. In the spring, spray buggies douse the field to control rust and tall plants would make it hard to get the penetration needed for effective control of the disease. Outside of organic systems, rust is managed by fungicides.

Pesticide spraying rig.

Tolerance for rusts in grains is genetic and I see no evidence that it is linked to straw length. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. Next spring, take a moment and see where the rust and other fungal diseases develop in the grain field. It is in the low areas where airflow is impeded. You can easily see the yellowing of the plants in these patches.

The problem with short-straw grains in an organic setting is the rain splashes soil and fungal inoculum onto the leaves and they take longer to dry out in the morning. Rust inoculum that blows into the field can thrive on the wet leaves and stems. Modern varieties are shin high, right in the splash zone. The durum, wheat and barley we grow are over waist high, so the foliage is well out of the splash zone. They do well in an organic setting. Bear in mind, these long-straw small grains have been grown successfully for eight millennia or more without employing a chemical arsenal. That is why we favor them.

Aerial application of pesticides.

The pernicious nature of spraying was driven home when we were planting melons and a neighbor sprayed his wheat field. As the buggy passed by, the brown ground spiders exited in a mass, crawling over our hands and legs. Thousands and thousands of refugees, an indelible moment, along with the chemical stench of the insecticide.

Unfortunately, pushing short-straw grain varieties that require heavy use of chemical inputs including fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides have damaged the health of farmers and ecosystems, especially in countries such as India and Mexico with lax environment controls. The Bhopal disaster was the result of a factory producing carbaryl, the insecticide marketed as Sevin.

Read more about legislative attempts to regulate spraying of pesticides in Oregon.

* Top photo shows an agricultural worker spraying pesticide on a short straw variety in India. These varieties require heavy use of expensive industrial pesticides (note the worker is unprotected from the spray). Often the seeds were genetically modified patented varieties, so farmers could not save the seeds from their crops as they had for millenia, and were forced to buy new seed every year or face prosecution.

USDA to Revoke Organic Animal Welfare Rule

The video above shows what organic egg production looks like at one Oregon factory farm. Crowded into closed-in barns, with "outside access" limited to a roofed-in, screened, cement-floored patio, with panels preventing the chickens from even seeing outside, is not what people imagine when they see the words "cage free" on the carton.

And it's about to get a lot worse unless you act now.

The demand from consumers for organic products has caused that segment of the grocery industry to explode. It's caught the attention of large agribusiness, which has been seeing its portion of the market starting to decline.

A new rule, carefully developed over the last decade, setting consistent and humane animal welfare standards for organic production, was about to go into effect when the current administration delayed its implementation. Over the holidays, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he was going to completely withdraw the new rule from consideration, a step that corporate agribusiness has been pushing for.

The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is accepting comments on its decision through Wednesday, January 17, so action is needed immediately. The Center for Food Safety has provided a simple form to submit a comment on this rule. It may sound alarmist, but the integrity of the organic label, including our health, and that of our communities and the environment, is at stake. I sincerely hope you consider signing it.