Sherman County, Oregon officials threaten to destroy organic status of 2,000-acre farm

County officials in Sherman County, Oregon have redefined their noxious weed "control" ordinance to mean "eradication" -- and they're threatening to forcibly enter the 2,000-acre Azure Farm near Moro in Central Washington to spray weeds.

The farm has been organically certified for around 18 years.  

Writer / commentator Jon Rappaport has the overview on the story at this link. His report includes a protest letter from another longtime friend, Chuck Benbrook.  

There's also a summary of the issue on the Azure website written by founder David Steizer at this link.

David has a personal video commentary on the Azure site, which we greatly recommend for a good perspective.  The farm markets products nationwide, and has a multi-million dollar payroll in Sherman County. 

On the video, David stresses the difference in worldviews between organic and "conventional" chemical farming. Wheat yields are near average for the county, he says.

There are many sides to any such conflict. But in this case, apparently what's happening is that Azure's nationwide success -- and a national distribution system -- has annoyed competitors and triggered a conflict in what's seen as "good farming."

A couple of years ago we met the Orchard Master at Azure Farm, Eddie Crippen, who was attending a seminar led by Dr. Arden Andersen in Olathe, Kansas. The farming and ethical standards reflected by Azure were impressive, so we touched base with Eddie for a little outside background on this conflict. He has since moved on to private consulting, but told us:  "The farming managers do a good job of organic weed control. Grain yields are above the county average. But some neighbors complained to the county about the presence of certain weeds. They even posted photos showing weeds -- photos which didn't even come from Azure Farms. It's an unfortunate local conflict."

Update May 15:  The Sherman County weed board has scheduled a public meeting on this issue Wednesday, May 17, at 4 p.m. in the Dufur School gymnasium. 

We visited by phone with Nathan Steizer, who manages operations at Azure Farms.  He told us the first he heard of the problem was a letter from the weed board. When he asked neighbors if there's a problem, "They said they wouldn't talk about it; just leave it up to county officials because that's what their tax dollars are paying for," said Nathan.

 

 

The farm's weed control program for noxious weeds like Canada thistles, Rush Skeleton Weed, Morning Glory and White top is to mow when they show up, says Nathan.  Canada thistles emerge in small patches. In the fall, those patches are deep-tilled when the ground is dry, exposing the roots to kill them.

"Next year, that patch has no thistles, or just one or two," says Nathan.

However, the weed board has maintained that "control" means total eradication of all weeds listed as noxious, and to them that calls for spraying with a non-organic weedkiller like Roundup.

That would instantly wipe out the farm's organic status. But it would not stop next year's patches of Canada thistles from emerging in new locations.

There are certified seed growers in the neighborhood who use chemical weed control. "Naturally they're concerned that if a weed shows up in a seed field and it's noted by the seed certifier, that field could lose its certified-seed status."

If spraying was 100% effective, then such certified fields shouldn't have a problem.

Nathan told us that at least one key member of the Sherman County weed control staff is interested in working with Azure Farms to eliminate the problem, without quarantining the farm and bringing in outside operators to spray it at the farm's expense.

However, neither of the two control plans offered by Azure so far have been acceptable to the full board. The Wednesday night meeting may help create a balance of interests in which the county can save the farm's organic status, preserve the farm as a valuable income source for the county, and meet the needs of all neighbors.

Interestingly, organic farmers have seldom found any legal recourse when their organic status is destroyed by chemical drift or the incursion of GMO pollen.