An estimated 30 million gallons of cow manure awaited cleanup on the former site of Lost Valley farm, a mega-dairy in Boardman, Oregon, when it was sold in February. The mess was an apt symbol of the yearlong, beleaguered tenure of what had been the state’s second largest dairy.
Lost Valley was shut down by the state earlier this year after repeated violations of environmental rules, and in the aftermath of its sale, farm and environmental advocates are urging passage of a bill that would issue a temporary moratorium on similar operations. They argue that the state has failed to consider the broader economic and environmental impact of these large-scale producers.
The bill would make Oregon the first state to take such an action.
The state’s dairy industry — a powerful economic force which accounted for more than $500 million worth of milk production in 2017 — opposes the measure. The industry has donated over $1 million to state lawmakers in the past decade. And Oregon dairy production has been rising, largely due to the arrival of mega-dairies like Lost Valley. The debate over the moratorium reveals a state in flux over which direction to steer its dairy industry.
In addition to establishing a moratorium on new dairies with more than 2,500 cows, Senate bill 103, which was introduced in January, would require studies on the economic impact of mega-dairies on small- and mid-size dairies; set up an animal-welfare task force; and mandate more stringent air-emission and water-use rules for large dairies. It also would classify such dairies as industrial operations, which would eliminate their protection from nuisance lawsuits under the state’s right-to-farm law. Two other bills that would modify oversight of mega-dairies are also being considered by the legislature.
“We need some serious reform so something like [Lost Valley] doesn’t happen again,” says Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers, an Oregon farm-advocacy group.
When Lost Valley was shut down, pictures showed cows standing up to their knees in manure. Nearby residents were concerned that their drinking water could be contaminated by the waste.
At a March 21 hearing on the proposed legislation, many people testified in opposition. The opponents, including several farmers associated with the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, argued that plenty of regulations already apply to dairy operations. They said Lost Valley was just a case of one bad operator who was ultimately pushed out of business as a result of mismanagement.
“Every dairy operator is required to comply with a myriad of regulations,” said David Yamamoto, a Tillamook County commissioner, who testified against the bill at the hearing, conducted by the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. “The cost of regulatory compliance is not free.” The Tillamook County Creamery Association, which produces Tillamook brand dairy products, is located in Yamamoto’s district.
Opponents also argued that the bills “represent an enormous threat to the economy of Tillamook County and to the vibrant dairy economy,” according to state Sen. Betsy Johnson, whose district includes part of Tillamook. “Thousands of jobs depend on the dairy industry.”
Moratorium advocates argued at the hearing that something must be done to reform the system that permitted Lost Valley owner Greg te Velde to go into business in the first place. When Lost Valley opened its doors in 2017, te Velde hadn’t yet secured all of the necessary permits. Soon after it began operation, manure from the dairy’s 15,000 cows overflowed from storage lagoons and flooded into the cows’ stalls. Though state Department of Agriculture regulators threatened to sue te Velde and shutter the farm, they allowed the dairy to continue operating after the incident, as The Oregonian reported last year. Ultimately, te Velde racked up $200,000 in fines and more than 200 environmental violations.
Many Oregonians vocally opposed Lost Valley well before it opened. During a public comment period in 2016, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Quality received thousands of comments opposing the mega-dairy—of 4,147 comments, just 15 supported permitting the operation. Residents were concerned about water contamination, especially given that the farm’s site was located in a region that the DEQ has given a special designation due to nitrate pollution. Commenters were also concerned about air quality, animal welfare, and worker safety, among other issues, but department officials deemed these concerns to be beyond of their scope.
Despite public concern, regulators moved Lost Valley through the permit process quickly. Emails among state officials demonstrated that they were aware of the gaps in te Velde’s paperwork and aided in fast-tracking his application despite his missing permits.
Environmental and other advocates say this series of events shows that systemic reforms are needed to adequately regulate Oregon’s mega-dairies. “This is not just an issue of one bad actor,” Maluski says. “The agencies bent over backwards to give [Lost Valley] a permit in a highly suspect manner.”
Asked to respond to the call to reform the permitting process, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture only confirmed that state regulators “consulted frequently” during the Lost Valley permitting process. She said, via email, that the site’s cleanup process is still underway: “30% of the manure solids and 40% liquid manure, process wastewater and collected stormwater generated by Lost Valley Farm has been land applied or exported.”
The moratorium proposal comes as Oregon dairy farms are in sharp decline. In 1992, Oregon had 1,900 farms with dairy cows, according to USDA data. By 2006, that number was 720. Today, the state has 228 dairy farms.
This trend is mirrored in many other states.
Maluski says that 20 dairies have shuttered just in the past two years. He links these closures to the rise of large-scale dairies in Oregon and elsewhere in the Northwest and Midwest. “There’s a glut of milk on the market in part because we’ve got this new wave of mega-dairies all over the country,” he says. “They’re overproducing and they’re driving small farmers out of business.”
Meanwhile, milk production in the state has risen dramatically in the past two decades, signaling that the remaining dairy farms house many more cows. The state’s largest dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms, in Boardman, has 70,000 cows. Such large-scale operations have the potential for a greater environmental impact.
Advocates also have sought more rigorous regulation of air emissions from these increasingly large dairy farms. The state legislature considered a bill in 2017 that would have regulated air emissions from dairies — something that had been called for since 2008 — but it failed. Meanwhile, federal and local reporting requirements for air emissions from large livestock farms have been effectively dismantled in the last two years by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congress.
The issue of water and air contamination was a major discussion point at the March 21 hearing. “[Concentrated animal feeding operations] are the biggest source of [nitrate] contamination,” said Amy Van Son, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety. “Air-emissions controls are something that are desperately needed.”
Yet the dairy industry remains opposed to any legislative changes that would rein in the expansion of mega-dairies in the state. In part, the spike is linked to the growth of the state’s dairy exports, which totaled $88 million in 2015. The U.S. exported nearly 15 percent of its milk production in 2017.
The dairy industry is a major donor to political candidates in Oregon. Threemile Canyon alone has donated $218,000 to candidates since 2006. As The Oregonian reported in February, Oregon ranks sixth in the country for political donations from the farming sector, as well as first in the country for donations from the soda and grocery industries, second for the restaurant industry, and third for food processing. Because of its lax rules on corporate giving, Oregon ranks first in the country in per capita corporate money in politics.
The idea of moratoriums on new or expanded large-scale livestock operations has been floated in other states. A coalition of farming and environmental groups support a moratorium on new large-scale animal operations in Wisconsin. A county in Indiana passed such a moratorium in 2018. In Iowa, 70 organizations signed onto a letter urging the state’s legislators to pass a moratorium, but the bill died March 8.
As for Senate bill 103, it will have to move out of committee by April 9 or it will be dead for this session. Another operator, Washington-based Easterday Farms, has already purchased the Lost Valley site for $66.7 million.