Chicks sip water at Hiday Poultry Farms in Brownville, Oregon on March 10, 2023. The operation is the biggest in the state. (Grant Stringer/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
BROWNSVILLE – Donning plastic booties and coveralls, about 30 state lawmakers, agency officials and industry executives gathered in a control room on Randy Hiday’s chicken farm in Linn County.
The room, equipped with temperature and other monitors, looked into a 600-foot-long steel barn housing about 48,000 fuzzy chicks. Hiday, who runs the largest broiler chicken operation in Oregon, raises more than 4 million chickens a year here for Foster Farms.
A Capital Chronicle reporter later stepped inside a barn, where the birds, just a few weeks old, dozed, sipped water and pecked at the ground, separated by rows of water dispensers. The earthy-smelling air hummed, blown by huge fans at one end, and the space was warm, kept at 86 degrees Fahrenheit, an optimal temperature for young birds.
The visit marked a rare look inside the state’s largest broiler chicken farm, situated on acres of sheep pasture, grass seed fields and a hazelnut orchard on the edge of the Cascade foothills. Hiday has 20 barns that raise the birds from chicks until they’re about a month and a half old, when they’re trucked to a Foster Farms plant in Kelso, Washington for slaughter.
The tour is part of the poultry industry’s battle against opponents of large animal feeding operations over proposed legislation. State Senate Bill 85 calls for an eight-year pause on new permits for the largest confined animal feeding operations. The bill also calls for the Oregon Department of Agriculture to study the environmental and climate impact of large operations and potentially recommend new regulations.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee held two packed hearings earlier this month, with several hundred people submitting testimony that was mostly in favor of the bill. The committee held another hearing this Wednesday to discuss a watered-down version of the bill. An amendment would limit the suspension of new permits to the largest chicken operations only, and the pause would be for two, not eight years.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said the amendment stems from talks with other unnamed legislators.
Most people who testified during the two-hour hearing were opposed to the amendment. Many are behind local opposition to plans for three huge chicken farms in the Willamette Valley. Hiday is behind an operation planned for Aumsville, which some area residents and the local government oppose. A campaign against large confined chicken operations spurred a work group last year led by state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, which called for stricter air and water quality regulations.
The Northwest Chicken Council, which champions poultry farmers, counters claims that the farms pollute local communities. It led the tour in Brownsville with officials from Foster Farms and Draper Valley Farms. The two companies contract with Hiday and about 25 other Oregon farmers to produce tens of millions of chickens each year. Four other large-scale chicken farmers from Oregon and Washington made the trip.
Eight state lawmakers attended the tour and a roundtable, including Republicans and two influential Democrats: Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, chair of the House Committee on Climate, Energy and Environment and Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources and Water. Also present was Wym Matthews, the state Department of Agriculture’s chief regulator of major chicken, beef and pork feeding operations, and Zach Loboy from the Department of Environmental Quality. The Capital Chronicle was the only media outlet to tour the site.
Golden, who told the Capital Chronicle he had a medical appointment, did not attend.
Environmentalists, animal rights activists and local farmers who oppose mega chicken farms criticized the visit. Kendra Kimbirauskas, owner of Shimanek Bridge Farm in Scio and a member of a community group, Farmers Against Foster Farms, said the industry is attempting to “save some face with legislators and public officials.”
She said it was inappropriate for representatives from the agriculture and environmental departments to be on the tour.
“That creates the optic that the agencies endorse industry’s position on this bill,” Kimbirauskas said.
Potential for pollution
Opponents say large chicken operations, which they call factory farms, spew ammonia into the air and pollute ground and surface water when the birds grow and conditions become crowded.
But the five chicken growers, who all have big operations, described their farms as tidy and environmentally friendly.
In his barn, Hiday said he has modern innovations to conserve water, feed and natural gas, which is used to heat the barn at precise temperatures corresponding to the birds’ age. The chicks will grow for about 37 more days in the barn until they reach 6.5 pounds, the right size for slaughter.
The barn’s floor is made of compressed soil, which is cleared of manure between each flock. Hiday stores the waste in a separate barn with a cement floor to prevent seepage into the soil and water table. But it’s a valuable commodity, he says. Most chicken farmers sell the manure as fertilizer on grass seed farms.
“It’s a huge percentage of our profit,” he said.
It’s also a hot-button issue. Chickens produce ammonia and nitrogen that have polluted waterways in other states. In 2020, a team of scientists at North Carolina State University concluded that poultry operations contributed significantly to nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a major hub for broiler chicken growers.
Excess nitrogen in water breeds algae blooms that block out sunlight and suck oxygen, imperiling aquatic life.
The study also found that much of those emissions settle in nearby soil and water. In September, Dembrow said lawmakers should allow the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to regulate emissions from industrial chicken facilities.
Northwest Chicken Council officials tout a rival study of air pollution in Maryland that was funded by the poultry industry. Researchers from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore found “that chicken houses do increase the ambient level of ammonia but not to any level that anyone has declared to be of concern to human health,” Deborah Sauder, a University of Maryland chemist, reportedly said.
That doesn’t satisfy activists like Kimbirauskas who are concerned about pollution. One of the planned megafarms would be about 400 yards from the Santiam River, a tributary of the Willamette River that’s important habitat for federally-protected species of salmon and steelhead, according to Willamette Riverkeeper, an Oregon City-based conservation organization.
In the roundtable meeting after the tour, the chicken farmers and advocates pushed back against what they called “fear mongering” about their work.
“‘Factory farm?’ That is insulting,” said Tuan Tiet, a Vietnam-born chicken farmer who runs a large feeding operation in Molalla.
Tiet said he works to reduce pollution and odors in his barns by planting barriers of trees outside. He treats his birds with respect as he raises them for slaughter, he said.
Megan Cozart of Yamhill County said she raises more than 2 million chickens per year and that her operation does not emit pollution or bad odors. She called her operation a “small, family farm” that puts food on the table for Northwest families.
Speaking to critics of large poultry growers, she said: “Where do you think your food comes from?”
According to the Northwest Chicken Council, older farmers are retiring while land prices, regulations and technological innovations are driving consolidation of chicken farms. Council officials maintain that new operations are needed to replace old ones and supply enough chicken meat for the demand.
‘Very impressive facility’
Republican Rep. Ed Diehl’s district could soon be home to the planned chicken megafarms. He had expected to see chickens stacked in cages “all crapping on each other.”
“There’s nothing ‘factory’ about the place,” he said.
Helm said he doesn’t support a moratorium on big farms even though some lawmakers, including Golden and Dembrow might.
“They’re good people,” Helm said. “I believe they’re being misled right now.”
Golden told the Capital Chronicle he was briefed by colleagues about the tour.
“My understanding from colleagues who attended is that Mr. Hiday has a very impressive facility, providing good evidence that it is possible for a facility of this size to operate in a responsible manner that’s compatible with a community’s well-being,” Golden said in an email.
He says he hasn’t taken a position on the moratorium.
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