Plan for one of Oregon’s largest chicken farms draws criticism; hearing set

Emotions are already running high in Scio, where a new confined animal feeding operation is hoping to produce millions of broiler chickens a year.

By: - October 20, 2021 6:00 am

Scio is known as the covered bridge capital of the west. Soon, it could be home to one of the state’s largest broiler chicken production operations. (Ian Sane, Flickr)

Eric Simon got into chicken farming 20 years ago after a career as an electronics technician because, he said, he was poor.

With his wife and two young kids, he moved 30 miles from Corvallis to rural Brownsville and bought a house on 40 acres on the edge of town.

He built barns and then contracted with Foster Farms, one of the country’s largest chicken processors. The company supplied him with chicks and took the grown animals for slaughter.

Simon started with 40,000 chickens and eventually grew to raising 200,000 chickens at a time.

Now he wants to add a second location in nearby Scio to raise millions of chickens – a plan drawing strong protests from some community members there. 

Simon proposes building 12 barns on 60 acres he bought last year near the Santiam River. In the barns, he’d house about 540,000 chickens at a time. 

In total, he would move about 3.5 million chickens through the barns each year, producing about 4,500 tons of manure. 

It would become one of the largest confined chicken production operations in the state. 

Because of that, the Oregon Department of Agriculture will have to issue a permit to operate a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO. The department has scheduled a virtual public hearing about that permit for 2 p.m. Wednesday. A hearings officer will take comments via Zoom.

Simon has waited a year for the hearing and his permit. 

After Wednesday’s hearing, the state agency will accept written comments until Monday, Oct. 25. If it gives Simon permission to operate, he needs only one more permit from the Department of Environmental Quality to get started. 

The Department of Agriculture said they will sort comments and the substance of comments and get responses to them, so they can’t offer a timeline for exactly when they’ll issue their permit if they do issue it. 

Glenda Brooking lives next to the land Simon bought, and doesn’t want to live next to an industrial chicken operation. She and her husband Monty moved to Scio three years ago from Tualatin to escape the city. 

Their house is about a third of a mile from Simon’s proposed chicken barns. Glenda works during the day as a home health care worker. Monty works the night shift as an engineer in a lab.

They bought goats and chickens when they moved out there. 

“It was supposed to be our little retirement farm,” Glenda said. 

Who wants to live next to millions of chickens?

– Glenda Brooking

Now she worries it will smell of manure, and that semi-trucks will be rumbling by.

She said she wouldn’t have bought the land had she known such a large farming operation would go in next to it. 

Citizens in the town of 900 calling themselves Farmers Against Foster Farms are trying to stop the operation. They say the chicken ranch would compromise the quality of life of neighbors like Brooking and the health of the nearby Santiam River. 

Leading the opposition is Christina Eastman, who lives about a quarter mile from Simon’s proposed operation. She grew up farming corn and other crops, then grass seed across 300 acres with her grandfather, father and uncles. 

“I felt like I’d been gut punched,” she said when in February she first heard a rumor about the plan to build a confined animal feeding operation next to her land. 

She later called around to find out that it was, indeed, happening. She started a Facebook page for Farmers Against Foster Farms, which now is up to about 125 followers. She said she has passed out around 400 lawn signs. 

Christina Eastman started Farmers Against Foster Farms in response to a new controlled animal feeding operation near her farm.

“I’m doing this for the eagles, ospreys, pheasants,” she said. “I’m protective of my town, my neighbors, my family, the groundwater. I’m fighting for them all.” 

Members of her group and the Portland-based environmental organization Willamette Riverkeeper are particularly concerned with the future health of the Santiam River if Simons’ chicken ranch goes in. Willamette Riverkeeper works to preserve the Willamette River and its tributaries, one of which is the Santiam River.  

The stretch that runs through Scio is in fairly pristine shape, and is a critical habitat for salmon and steelhead of the Willamette River system, according to the Western Rivers Conservancy.

Elizabeth Holmes is staff attorney for Willamette Riverkeeper. She’s concerned Simons’ new operation won’t account for all the ways in which water will move through his property and into the river. 

His proposal to the state includes plans for wastewater and for keeping manure off the ground, but she’s worried it’s not enough. 

“The distance from the top of the soil to the groundwater is pretty shallow,” she said. She’s also concerned about rain and flooding in an area that receives a lot of both. 

“It’s in a wetland. If you bring in millions of chickens and tons of chicken waste, this is not the place to do it if you’re concerned about water quality,” she said.

She added that the river has already been taxed by sediment resulting from last fall’s wildfires. 

Simon contends that the operation would be dry, where wastewater and manure will be combined in an enclosed barn, composted and sold for fertilizer. He forecasts little to no chicken waste will get into the stream, but his will be the first large operation to test that on this stretch of river.

The size of the farm itself is driven by market forces, he said. 

We need different price points for food. Across the state, people have different economic access to be able to afford this.

– Wym Matthews, program manager for CAFOS at Oregon Department of Agriculture

To make it viable to farm chickens and make a profit, and to not work 12 hours a day seven days a week doing it, and to meet the growing needs of Foster Farms, he needs an operation turning out millions of chickens.

The scale of the operation and the treatment of the animals are a point of contention between Simon and the Farmers Against Foster Farms. 

Wym Matthews is program manager for CAFOs at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. He said that operations like Simon’s create local access to chicken meat, rather than buying from the chicken belt states like Arkansas and North Carolina, which have even more lax regulations around confined animal feeding operations. 

The chickens from Simons’ operation will be sold primarily in Oregon, Washington and California at chain grocers like Safeway and Albertsons.

Matthews also said small and large operations have to coexist in the state. 

“We need different price points for food,” he said. “Across the state, people have different economic access to be able to afford this.”

Simon contends his chickens have a good life in temperature-controlled barns. He said that because his operation is larger, he will be working at a greater efficiency, producing a less resource intensive chicken, and feeding more people. 

Holmes of Willametter Riverkeeper has fought confined animal feed operations in several states. She said producers commonly argue that they feel they are more efficient and thus cleaner than smaller farms, and that they are feeding the world. 

“Industrial farming, trucking in millions of chicks a year, is carbon intensive,” she said. 

For Glenda and Monty Brooking some of their larger concerns have already come barreling towards and passed them. They’ve seen freight trucks go by their house, dropping off equipment on Simons’ new property and getting things ready for what he hopes is clearance to start soon. 

Glenda worries she’ll have to build a fence so none of her animals end up getting into what promises to be more steady traffic.

She won’t participate in Wednesday’s hearing. It had been originally scheduled for last month and she took the day off of work to attend that one. This time, she has to be at work.

She said she’s already shared her perspective with Simon.

“I told him, ‘Do I want it here? No. Am I going to be an enemy if you do? No,’” she said.

The Brookings don’t plan to abandon their retirement farm yet, and they don’t see how they could really. 

“Who would buy this land? Who wants to live next to millions of chickens?”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.