Farmers pack legislative hearing on bill that would halt new large animal operations

Testimony from farmers, environmental advocates and industry reveal deeper concerns about the future of farming in Oregon

By: - March 6, 2023 6:06 pm
A large dairy is proposed for northeast Oregon.

A large dairy is proposed for northeast Oregon where residents have been grappling with groundwater contaminated with nitrates. (Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture)

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 26 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. 

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.

– Greg Addington, executive director, Oregon Farm Bureau

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 26 chicken plants in Oregon 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.”

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. This is wrong. Neighbors matter. We can do better.

– Joe Doornenbal, Scio dairy farmer

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.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She 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.

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