The years-long fiasco began in 2019 when the Easterday family, potato and onion growers and owners of huge swaths of agricultural land in Eastern Washington, bought the notorious Lost Valley Farm megadairy after it closed due to criminal charges against its owner and hundreds of violations of its permits to operate. Originally permitted to milk 30,000 cows, it was considered a state-of-the-art facility, but due to the erratic actions of Lost Valley owner Greg te Velde, it never came close to housing that number of cows.
In a 2019 post, I asked, "Who would be crazy enough to buy a facility that will require millions of dollars to clean up and more millions to install a new irrigation system…with some 47 million gallons of liquid manure still remaining onsite—which one source estimated would fill 71 Olympic swimming pools?"
In the four years since the purchase, the renamed Easterday Dairy—which was never allowed to bring cows onsite until it showed significant progress at cleaning up the massive mess left by Lost Valley—only got into more trouble, a partial list of which includes:
- A massive fraud operation dubbed "Cattlegate" perpetrated by Cody Easterday, scion of the Easterday family enterprises, in which he claimed to be feeding 200,000 cattle owned by Tyson Fresh Meats but in fact the cattle existed only on paper and were created to cover up Easterday's losses on the commodities market.
- The death of Cody's father, wealthy cattleman Gale Easterday, who died shortly after the fraud was revealed when he drove his car the wrong way on the freeway near the ranch and ran head-on into an 18-wheeler hauling Easterday potatoes.
- In 2021 many of the Easterday businesses declared bankruptcy and most of the family’s massive farm and ranch empire were auctioned off.
- In October of 2022 Cody was sentenced to 11 years in a federal penitentiary in California for the fraud against Tyson.
- In April of this year the Oregon Department of Agriculture handed down a notice of noncompliance to Cody's son Cole, who was put in charge of the dairy after his father's scam came to light, detailing more than 60 violations ranging from fertilizer spills to irrigation runoff to misapplications of manure on the dairy's property.
- Oregon Public Broadcasting reported in August of this year that Cody Easterday and his wife owe the Internal Revenue Service more than $12.5 million in personal taxes, which has issued a lien against their assets.
In a recent article in the Tri-City Herald, in deciding to give up the application to re-open the dairy, lawyers for the family told a court in early 2023 that they had reached an agreement with the former landowner, Canyon Farms II and Fall Line Capital, in a $14 million lawsuit over how the land was being managed, but that in mid-August it appeared that Easterday Dairy and Canyon Farms had come to an agreement to sell the property back to the California-based company.
What happens next to the property is an open question. Food & Water Watch Oregon, which has been advocating for a moratorium on new or expanded factory farms until Oregon gets its regulatory house in order, issued a press release that said "the [Easterday Dairy] site is located in an area already plagued with widespread nitrate contamination that has contaminated private drinking water wells for nearby communities. This contamination led Food & Water Watch and allies to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take emergency action to address the drinking water crisis in 2020, and that petition is still pending."
Regardless of what happens to the property, the contamination of the land and aquifer under the site, already designated a federal Groundwater Management Area, will need to be cleaned up before it's developed, a daunting task that would potentially cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
An additional responsibility is Oregon's just-passed SB 85 that requires a multi-step process for water quality permitting, including a water supply plan, for new factory farms and temporarily closes an exemption allowing use of drinking water for livestock without a permit or water right. It also increases agency oversight of spreading factory farm waste on land where the groundwater is already contaminated with nitrates and gives authority to, but doesn’t require, local governments to require setbacks when siting factory farms.
We'll have see if the owners, and the bureaucrats tasked with holding the developers' feet to the fire, are up to the job.
Photos: Leaking tanks, including sewage and chemicals, when Easterday Dairy purchased the Lost Valley Farm property (top); Cody and his wife by Megan Farmer for KUOW.