Chickens gather around a feeder at a farm in Osage, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
For months, a group of state lawmakers, farmers, environmentalists, county commissioners and opponents and supporters of industrial chicken farms have discussed the future of these operations in Oregon.
On Thursday, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who chaired the group, told a state legislative committee that lawmakers should review state water laws for livestock, allow the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to regulate air pollution from industrial chicken facilities, and ensure that counties have more control over permitting and conditions for these facilities, known as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, convened the working group in July to study concerns and solutions following a growing number of large chicken operations proposed in the Willamette Valley near the Santiam River.
In the last two years, industrial chicken growers brought three farms in Marion and Linn counties, planning to raise millions of broiler chickens a year. If established, at least two of the farms would become the largest industrial chicken operations in the state, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Both of those farms would sell their chickens to California-based processor Foster Farms, the largest on the West Coast.
Dembrow, appointed chair of the group by Golden, held five meetings that included the owner of one of the proposed chicken CAFOs, Eric Simon, as well as the president of the Northwest Chicken Council, Bill Mattos. Opponents to large chicken operations also participated, including Brian Posewitz, staff attorney of the nonprofit conservation group WaterWatch, and Kendra Kimbirauskas, owner of Shimanek Bridge Farm in Scio and a member of a community group, Farmers Against Foster Farms.
Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem; Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale; Rep. Jamie Cate, R-Lebanon; and Rep. Zach Hudson, D-Troutdale also participated, along with county commissioners Casey Kulla of Yamhill County and Roger Nyquist of Linn County.
Dembrow told the Senate Interim Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife Recovery on Thursday that water rights are a contentious issue, given the drought and the growing strain on aquifers around the state.
Oregon allows livestock owners and CAFO operators to provide water to animals without securing any water rights, a provision that’s known as a stock water exemption. Other agricultural operations, such as irrigation, require owners to obtain water rights. Dembrow said one of the chicken CAFOS proposes drawing water from a well, which would not require reporting. He said neighbors, which also rely on wells, wouldn’t know how much water was being used.
People urged us to ensure air quality with these facilities.
– Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland
Changing the state’s stock water exemption is a concern for the Officials at the Oregon Farm Bureau, a nonprofit that represents 6,700 farmers, opposes changing the exemption.
“Any attempts to alter the stockwater exemption would have widespread impacts on farmers and ranchers across the state,” Mary Ann Cooper, the bureau’s vice president of government and legal affairs, said Aug. 31 during a group meeting.
Cooper added that she believes adding any CAFO regulations would lead to increased corporatization of farms: Bigger companies have more money than smaller farms to upgrade facilities. Of the 30 people who gave or submitted testimony during the Aug. 31 meeting, the majority voiced opposition to large poultry operations.
Dembrow said he will convene another group to look more closely at water issues related to CAFOs.
“People urged us to ensure air quality with these facilities,” Dembrow told lawmakers.
In 2007, the state Legislature created a Dairy Air Quality Task Force made up of local and state officials, scientists from Oregon State University, public health professionals and representatives from environmental groups and the dairy industry to study regulating pollution from cow CAFOs. The group strongly recommended the state create a dairy air-emissions program, but legislation was never proposed. In 2017, another attempt at regulation failed when a bill to create a permit program for dairy air pollution died in the Senate. Dembrow said the chicken CAFO working group wants the state to take another look at allowing Oregon’s environmental quality department to set air quality standards for all kinds of CAFOs. He added that federal authorities have been looking at potential regulations on CAFO air quality for several years.
“Rumor has it they are approaching some conclusions, finally, and that would be very helpful for us,” he said. “It would allow DEQ a starting point.”
The county commissioners who participated in the work group said their constituents want to play a larger role in setting the conditions under which CAFOs operate. Dembrow said they used the example of cannabis legalization in Oregon.
“We agreed as a Legislature that cannabis operations are agricultural and should be treated as such. But because of the nature of the operations, it made sense to allow counties or the state to set requirements regarding their operation on time, place and manner,” he told the senators.
This would allow counties to play a larger role in where CAFOs are established and how many can operate in some areas.
Dembrow said that representatives from the poultry industry were adamant that chicken CAFOs in Oregon would not look like those in southeastern states like Georgia and Mississippi, where there are thousands of chicken CAFOs with millions of broiler chickens each.
“They said facilities here will tend to be newer and also under stricter regulation,” Dembrow said.
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