Feeding time in the free stall heifer barns at Brubaker Farms, which is both a diary and green energy producer in Mount Joy, PA on March 19, 2011. The family farm owned by Luke, Mike and Tony Brubaker has approximately 850 cows and 700 young stock, producing 20,200,000 pounds of milk last year. It has 13 full-time employees and more than 1,500 acres of farmland. Their methane digester was made possible with a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development (RD) Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant that provided a cost-share of the digester purchase. It can handle more than 41,859 metric tons of organic waste, to capture methane gas that fuels a low emission generator producing 225 kW. This powers the digester itself and farm operations. Excess power is sold to the local power grid, allowing the community to benefit from a green energy source. After producing methane, effluent from the digester is pressed to separate liquid and solid materials. The farm uses the liquids in fertilizer; and solids become the cows’ bedding for Brubaker and other local farms, that is cleaner than sawdust. The bedding saves the farm approximately $30,000 per year. Mount Joy residents can enjoy the fact that the process removes 90% of the odor from the cow manure. The methane itself is odorless and colorless. The system can accept an additional 2,600 gallons of food waste per day from local sources that would otherwise dispose of it in a local landfill. Additionally, their nutrient credits can be sold to the local municipality to help it to meet federal requirements and to keep sewer bills from rising. This provides additional revenue for the farm, and creates environmentally friendly community partnerships. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Dozens of farmers, environmental advocates and representatives from industry packed a legislative hearing to express their opposition or support for a bill that would stop any new, large animal operations from being permitted for eight years. 

During nearly two hours on Monday, they testified before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources. Farmers with dozens of animals and those with hundreds shared their concerns about the future of livestock production in the state and its effect on the economy. Nearly all raise chickens or cows for meat or milk products. 

Large operators said they were forced to acquire more animals and land to pay for ever more taxes and fees and abide by regulations to compete in an industry controlled by multinational corporations. Smaller operators talked about the impact to rural communities when a handful of large operators take over, driving up land prices and consuming limited water resources.

About 400 people also testified in writing, with more than 300 in favor of the bill and 100 against. Due to the large number of people hoping to testify in person Monday, another public hearing on the bill has been scheduled for 8 a.m. March 13. A committee vote to advance the bill further will need to be scheduled by March 17. 

Senate Bill 85, which initially directed the Oregon Department of Agriculture to study the impact of industrial farming operations, now includes an amendment ordering the Oregon Department of Agriculture to stop issuing new permits for industrial-sized operations known as Tier 2, or for their expansion until June 30, 2031 and the study is complete.

A Tier 2 confined animal operation is the biggest in Oregon, and applies to those with several thousand animals, including 2,500 or more dairy cows and 125,000 or more chickens. Of more than 200 large dairies in the state, just 14 are Tier 2, and among the 24 large chicken plants, just four are Tier 2, according to state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. Dembrow testified at the meeting about the takeaways from a working group he convened last year to study the impact of large chicken plants following a growing number of operations proposed in the Willamette Valley near the Santiam River. 

Lawmaker testimony 

Eight lawmakers, including two Democrats in support of the bill and six Republicans opposed, spoke at the hearing. Many were from districts where agriculture drives the economy, including several from Tillamook County, which has large dairy operations, and Lane and Benton counties, where more large chicken operations are being proposed. 

State Sen. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, said halting new large operations and expansions for eight years would close many businesses in her district. State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said at least 20% of the state’s industrial animal operations are in his district, and that the bill would be an economic disaster for them. State Rep. Jami Cate, R-Lebanon, said that over the last 15 years, the 36 chicken plants in her district have only received seven nuisance complaints. 

Zach Hudson, D-Troutdale, said the state needs time to evaluate how to regulate such large operations before more of them are established. 

Dembrow submitted written testimony in support of the bill, and is behind two more legislative proposals, Senate Bills 86 and 399, that would require operators using 5,000 or more gallons of water per day to report their use to the Oregon Water Resources Department and be subject to the department’s rules. Large animal operators currently do not need water rights for the water for their animals. 

The future of farming

Richard Nixon’s former agriculture secretary Earl Butz lived by a famous and foreboding motto: American farmers needed to “get big or get out.” It was a frequent refrain among those testifying in both support and opposition of the bill Monday.

Tarah Heinzen, legal director of the nonprofit environmental and public health advocacy group Food & Water Watch, said large operations in Oregon are the result of such a philosophy, and are driving the consolidation of the livestock industry.

“Over the last 20 years, Oregon has lost 40% of its Grade A licensed dairies, even as cow numbers and the number of mega dairies in the state have increased,” she said. “Oregon’s remaining family dairy farms are facing growing economic pressure to get big or get out.”

Greg Addington, director of the nonprofit Oregon Farm Bureau with about 6,500 members, said it was not fair to farmers to stop permitting large operations after decades of being pushed to grow. 

“We have slowly forced agricultural operations to get larger to survive. Yet now we’re here talking about limiting how big a farm can get or how many animals we think are appropriate. It’s a slippery slope in my opinion,” he said.

Tiffany Monroe, a Black farmer in Lane and Benton counties, said limiting farm sizes infringes on the ability of Black farmers to participate in the industry. 

“It has major impacts on producers like myself who fight and fight generation after generation to be able to grow food in Oregon,” she said. “Every operation no matter the size is interconnected, and when one collapses, it impacts us on the ground. It impacts me in Junction City and will impact my ability to pass my farm on to my son.”

Other farmers were concerned that many large operations are supplying or are run by out-of-state conglomerates and that the rules regulating the sounds, smells and potential for contamination are outdated.

John Carter, a livestock farmer near Salem said the state’s Right to Farm Law that exempts many large operations from liability for nuisance charges hasn’t been updated since 2001. 

“I doubt if anybody could foresee 10,000 cow dairies and million bird chicken factories at that time,” Carter said. 

Others said the state needs to do a better job notifying locals when someone has requested a permit. 

Kendra Kimbirauskas, owner of Shimanek Bridge Farm in Scio and a member of a community group called Farmers Against Foster Farms said neighbors who noticed the signs of a poultry operation who first alerted her to several moving in nearby.

“My neighbors and I found out about these sites in the community rumor mill,” she said. “By contrast, if I wanted to add a temporary dwelling for an elderly relative on my farm, there would be a public process to allow my neighbors to weigh in — but not for 4.6 million chickens.”

Joe Doornenbal, a permit holder for an organic dairy farm on Thomas Creek near Scio, said the concerns of neighbors worried about water quality, quantity and air quality around large chicken and dairy operations need to be taken seriously. 

“There are many industries that are required to notify the neighbors because of the impact on quality of life for obvious reasons, but in the case of CAFOs there is no such requirement,” he said. “This is wrong. Neighbors matter. We can do better.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.