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)
On a recent Wednesday evening about 60 people living in and around the town of Scio southeast of Salem gathered in their local community center to discuss the arrival of new neighbors.
In just the last two years, three area farms sold to industrial chicken growers who brought with them plans to produce millions of broiler chickens a year. If established, at least two of the farms would become the largest confined feeding operations of broiler chickens in the state, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Both of those farms would be selling their chickens to California-based processor Foster Farms, the largest on the West Coast.
Though each of the three farms has submitted building plans to the county, and one has begun construction, none of the farms has yet received a necessary state permit to operate.
Some living in the area wonder why producers are landing on this particular slice of the Willamette Valley. They’re worried about how much manure the chickens could produce, whether it would get into the nearby North Santiam River or Thomas Creek, tributaries to the Willamette River. They worry about smells, and industrial fans blowing dust and dander from the chicken compounds into the water and the air.
The producers and advocates contend that running large-scale chicken farms is better for the environment than a host of smaller scattered operations. They say that producing at that scale is needed to meet growing regional and national demand.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans eat twice as much chicken now as they did 50 years ago – nearly 100 pounds per person per year.
At that Wednesday meeting on Feb. 23, Kendra Kimbirauskas encouraged her neighbors to write to local legislators to oppose the farms and the state process for issuing permits for CAFOs – controlled animal feeding operations.
Kimbirauskas is vice president of the Northwest Farmers Union and raises beef cattle, goats, chickens and hogs on pasture near Thomas Creek not far from one of the proposed chicken operations. She also is part of Farmers Against Foster Farms, the group opposed to the chicken farms.
“These chicken warehouses are coming in and they’re really just factories, and we don’t have rules in place that adequately protect people,” she said in an interview.
Kimbirauskas takes issue with Oregon’s permitting process for confined animal feeding operations. People often get approval from county officials for the buildings they need before they apply to the state Agriculture Department for the state permit.
Kimbirauskas and the Farmers Against Foster Farms want more opportunity for public input before buildings are permitted, and they want to stop the three proposed chicken farms from going forward.
The producers continue to wait for their state permits. The Agriculture Department has no set timeline for deciding on the permits. One application has been in process for more than a year.
The first of the chicken operations
Scio is a town of about 900 people and is the self-proclaimed “covered bridge capital of the West.” The people there pride themselves on their bucolic countryside and pasture, according to Christina Eastman, who grew up farming corn and other crops, then grass seed, across 300 acres with her grandfather, father and uncles.
“It’s like being on top of heaven,” Eastman said of the rolling hills and forests of the Willamette Valley.
The area is home to several large-scale cattle and dairy operations, including one that can house more than 1,000 cows, and many farmers in the area raise livestock on pasture.
But Eastman takes issue with where the new operations will be built, along the North Santiam River, Thomas Creek and, one of them, about a quarter mile from where she lives.
Simon lives in Brownsville, about 30 miles south of Scio, where he produces about 200,000 chickens per year on farmland where he and his family live.
In Scio, he proposed constructing 12 buildings that would house half a million chickens at a time — 3.5 million over a year. In August of 2020, he first applied for the required state agriculture permit, but had to revise and resubmit in early 2021.
When Eastman learned of Simon’s plan, she mobilized against it, founding Farmers Against Foster Farms. She distributed more than 400 yard signs encouraging her neighbors to oppose the farm.
Then, another industrial chicken farmer bought land in the unincorporated community of Jordan 11 miles away, and then another, about 12 miles away in Aumsville.
Conservation groups have joined the opposition.
Elizabeth Holmes, staff attorney for Willamette Riverkeeper, said if any of the 4,500 tons of manure that Simon’s chickens would produce each year made it to the North Santiam, it could be detrimental to the ecosystems.
“All of these tributaries bring in cold, clear, clean water,” Holmes said. “These giant poultry barns aren’t being lined, some of the compost and waste storage is unlined and uncovered. I have concerns about the leaching of manure from the barns,” she said.
In an interview with the Capital Chronicle in October, Simon said his operation would be dry, wastewater and manure would be in enclosed barns and he forecasts little to no chicken waste would get into the waterways.
At a public hearing in October over his state permit, more than 100 people and conservation groups wrote to the state Agriculture Department to express opposition. Simon received 18 letters and comments in support.
More chicken operations follow
In 2021, Brownsville poultry farmer Randy Hiday bought land and proposed new buildings for Hiday Poultry Farm in Aumsville, 11 miles from Scio.
Randy Hiday has building permits for 16 long barns to house broiler chickens, though whether they are for Foster Farms is yet unknown. Hiday didn’t respond to telephone or email messages.
Then, in January, came the Evergreen Ranch, 12 miles from Scio in the unincorporated town of Jordan, which will be run by Jason Peters. He has applied for a state permit to house 750,000 chickens at a time.
The operation would produce about five tons of manure each year, according to the application.
Peters in an interview didn’t want to discuss details of his planned operation, but confirmed he would be producing broiler chickens for Foster Farms. Peters, who runs an excavation business, said he has 12 years experience in chicken farming and will live on the ranch with his wife and three kids.
Why Scio, Why now?
According to James Hermes, a retired professor and poultry specialist at Oregon State University, the Willamette Valley has been popular for broiler chicken production for decades. The number of farms has condensed in the last 30 years due to costs, and those bigger operations need to be closer to areas where farmers get chicks and chicken feed and closer to the factories that process the chickens for market.
Hermes said the Scio area works well for these chicken producers because Foster Farms has a hatchery in nearby Mill City and a feed mill north of Woodburn. Foster Farms has a processing plant in Kelso, Wash. – about a two-hour drive from Scio.
“It’s far more economical to produce poultry in a large farm than a whole series of small farms,” Hermes said. “It’s far more economical to grow in large numbers and in one location.”
Hermes said when he arrived in Oregon in the late 80s, the state had 60 to 70 chicken farms that each raised about 20,000 to 30,000 birds a year.
Today, Hermes said, 34 chicken farms in the state each produce at least 100,000 chickens at a time.
Kimbirauskas at Farmers Against Foster Farms thinks some of the desire to move into Scio and the surrounding area also has to do with Foster Farms responding to climate change.
She thinks it wants to expand to more Oregon farmers, and that it has targeted Scio because the area is more climate resilient than other chicken production areas in California facing more extreme weather events and water issues.
“If you’re reading the tea leaves, the Willamette Valley is a good place to go,” she said. “The climate here won’t change much in the next 10 years and Oregon doesn’t regulate groundwater withdrawal like California is now doing.”
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