Thursday, November 30, 2017

Squash Sagra: Get Your Squash On This Weekend!

Quick quiz:
  1. When was the last time you ate squash? How was it prepared?
  2. When was the last time you bought a whole squash?
  3. How many varieties can you name (besides acorn and butternut)?
For answers to these and other squash-related questions, you should plan to attend the Squash Sagra, a festival devoted to all things squash this Sunday, December 3, from 11 am to 3 pm at The Redd on Southeast 9th and Salmon St.

Musquée de Provence.

The Sagra—local festival in Italian—is free and open to the public in conjunction with the annual Fill Your Pantry event hosted by Friends of Family Farmers. Local chefs will be handing out samples of squash dishes they've prepared, sharing recipes and discussing flavors and culinary uses of the diverse varieties of squash grown locally. Farmers will be offering a wide array of vegetables, beans and grains for purchase on-site, so there'll be something for everyone.

Kabocha squash.

You'll also have the opportunity to learn about the four categories of squash: sweet squash perfect for desserts, baked goods and pastries; simple squash that can be baked or steamed with no added ingredients; salad squash with their excellent flavor and texture when eaten raw; and saucy squash that are ideal for sauces, soups or curries. (See the Eat Winter Squash website for more info and photos.)

Black futsu.

There'll be a squash butchery booth where chef Tim Wastell will share pro tips and techniques for cutting up and storing the larger squash varieties. Uprising Seeds, Washington state's first 100% organic seed company, will be demonstrating a European seed oil press to make your own seed oils. There'll be a kids' play area for younger folk to taste samples of these delectable cucurbits and learn about how squash grow. And of course there's the ubiquitous Photo Booth where you can cuddle up to the cucurbit of your choice and take home a photo that'll prove your love.

"I've been wanting to do a sagra like this for a long time," said Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network, one of the sponsors of the sagra. "Hopefully people will get really inspired and learn a lot about the different categories of squash that are grown in our area."

Get my recipes for squash soup, squash pie and squash risotto. Even squash sorbet (it's delicious, I promise)!

Top photo by Shawn Linehan featuring Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network admiring a Doran Round Butternut squash from Adaptive Seeds Farm. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Farm Bulletin: Our Land of Tule and Cattails

You might ask why a farmer would devote nearly half his acreage to support a wetland rather than filling it and growing more crops. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm has his reasons.

It is hard to muster much sympathy for nutria, with their beady little eyes and humorless demeanor. Then again, the poor dears spend the summer quietly feeding and building among the tule and cattails—unobserved bliss in nutria terms. Then the water level rises and migratory water fowl descend. The geese and cormorants haze them mercilessly and defecate all over their tussocks, and the eagles eye them hungrily. They cluster together, four or five, to avoid being picked off as prey. This morning the water is very high and a shard of sympathy is felt.

Patches of tule at the south end of the wetland.

Ayers Creek Farm has nearly 80 acres of ground suited to the production of crops. The remaining 64 acres include a 40-acre open wetland, 20 acres of oak savannah and some swales of green ash and hawthorn. A little over half the farm is a managed landscape, a little under is largely unmanaged. It is hard to imagine the farm without its two hemispheres. For us, a highly productive square of farmland would be a dull place indeed without the messy exuberance of the wild areas bleeding into our efforts at an organized ecology.

This spring we were approached by a botanist volunteering for the UFWS [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]. Ginny Maffit was curious about our bottomland which, she had heard through the grapevine, was a fine example of an undisturbed wetland community. In response, we explained the process whereupon it became “undisturbed,” a term the nutria would dispute. Several notes, edited and merged, describe how the wetland developed and matured.

* * *

Our wetland, about 40 acres in extent, was cultivated until 2002. It is mostly Labish muck*. Because it is outside of the local dike system, it tended to flood early, making harvest difficult. For many years, the "Wapato Improvement District" managed water level in the valley bottom for onion growing. Over time, onion growers died off and their families eventually sold the various holdings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a Wapato Lake refuge.

Wapato or arrowhead flower.

As onion-growing petered out, pumping patterns within the dike changed, increasing the challenges. We asked TVID [Tualatin Valley Irrigation District] to let the water rise as security measure for the other irrigated fields on our property, providing a buffer capacity. We fretted initially because many people told us we would end up with a thicket of reed canary grass. Several people identified a certain piece of property within the lake, owned by a federal agency, that turned into a canary grass wasteland. We had never seen it, but heard about it a lot. On the other hand, along highway 47, south of milepost 22, there is a small patch of wetland that we had always envied because of its vegetative structure.

We poked about the government websites researching wetland restoration, but the approach always seemed to be heavy-handed and inconsistent with our appreciation of natural succession. We are organic farmers by disposition. In addition, we have confidence in the way natural systems can repair a site. The first few years a low, rhizomatous grass took over the low areas on the site, dominated by Labish muck. And, as predicted by Gaston's Greek chorus anticipating another tragedy, reed canary grass quickly occupied the Wapato silty clay soils, a foot or two higher in elevation but still flooded from October through March. Another year or two passed, and we noticed the vegetation was starting to shift. Through the thick thatch of the "witch" grasses, we saw new plants emerging. In the reed canary grass, several different woody plants established themselves, including roses, ashes, hawthorns and spirea.

A cinnamon teal nest.

By 2007, the bottom had developed a remarkable mosaic of vegetation types. Tule, bulrushes, cattails, wapato, sedges, rushes and various grasses were all represented in bands and islands. The hardwood shrubs and trees are now establishing themselves along the fringes. It is a beautiful example of a natural wetland succession, predominantly native in composition. Now the Chorus’ chant can praise the natural qualities of the wetland.

Yes, there are some non-native species, especially along the eastern fringe. However, the bulk of the wetland represents as fine a native wetland as you can find, resulting from a simple, just-add-water approach. Cost us next to nothing in treasure or effort, and has provided endless pleasure. There is a rich assemblage of nesting birds. The last two years, we have had between 20 and 65 white pelicans foraging in the shallows during the spring. One sultry evening this summer, we spent an hour watching a yellow breasted chat as it bounced from one perch to another. At the south end, there is a big patch of tule where the marsh wrens build their softball-sized and shaped nests. Another reason to tarry on the way to nowhere in particular.

Drained wetland systems that have been cultivated for decades do not have much to contribute vis-a-vis their seed bank. So how did all these plants find their way to our swampy hole? Wetlands are generally connected via water courses and/or fauna (birds and mammals), and these provided the seed source. Growing up in New England, we are familiar with shifting wetlands following a move-in by beavers damming a stream, necessitating a portage. Within about the same space of time as our wetland development, these ponds would fill in with the species typical of wetlands along the water course.

Wapato or Arrowhead growing in clumps.

Our wetland is illustrative of this mechanism. As we are outside the dike, we received seeds and other propagules from the diverse, vestigial patches of the original Wapato Lake that fringe the outer wetland fragments that have never been cropped. Not of great extent or particularly interesting to most, but of immense importance to holes. As the system drains in late winter, the water flows upstream from these patches, as well as downstream, so we get a nice dose of propagules from these areas. Because it is a case of mass selection rather than a managed planting, the various species and assemblages find their appropriate place in the mosaic of soil types and water depths. Planted “restorations” in our estimation always look planted, a forced pattern discordant to the eye.

We see our patch of wetland as a grow-out of the Wapato Lake's historic flora, maybe not complete in terms of species but functionally whole. It provides a summer home for the bitterns, grebes, rails, marsh wrens and cinnamon teal and other ducks. We have a large and diverse population of dragonflies as well, and they spend the summer hawking among our crops.

All-pelican production of Swan Lake.

Among the birds is a tundra swan that has been there since January or so. It was probably injured rather than uninspired to take flight, however it an observation based on sedentary behavior rather than seeing an injury. Otherwise very healthy, no signs of distress. It continues to stretch its wings, moves well on land and water, a nice natural water feature. This autumn it has been joined by 16 other swans, including two grey cygnets. This is the second year we have hosted white pelicans, one evening we counted 65, though typically they numbered around 24. These huge, ungainly birds are spectacular when they come in to land. The swan, unimpressed by their magnificence, stayed apart, and engaged in some agitated head bobbing when they came close.

Over that last four years the wetland, formerly leveled for agricultural use, has developed a distinctly hummocky aspect. The architects are the nutria, regarded as vermin by most farmers and used as target practice by local kids. These hirsute engineers create channels and pools so they can move about the wet areas safely and efficiently, their own variation of Venice's canals. There may be muskrats as well, but the nutria are the dominant rodents. Walking the wetland's fringe, it is apparent that the channels of the rodents are extending the wetland vegetation in the areas dominated by the reed canary grass. Wetland plants are well adapted to herbivory. In fact their growth is generally stimulated by the activity, as is evident by the work of the nutria. Native Americans observed and understood the stimulatory effect of their harvest, and maintained vigorous beds of wapato. That is why we are sanguine about harvesting some of the corms for our restaurant accounts.

* Muck is a high organic content soil type formed from former lake bottom deposits. “Labish muck” is a series found in the Willamette Valley. The type was first described from the remains of Lake Labish in the Salem area. The muck of Lake Wapato shares its characteristics, so it falls into that soil type.

All photos by Anthony Boutard.

Monday, November 27, 2017

My Kimchi Quest: First Try and Kimchi Fried Rice

I've finally decided to get over my fear of fermentation, that nagging worry that I'm going to kill my family with a deadly bacteria, or at a minimum have glass shards and vinegary vegetables blown all over my kitchen. (Is it any wonder my superpower is coming up with the worst case scenario for any and all occasions?)

Korean kimchi crocks.

But with assurances from experienced friends that neither of those outcomes was likely, and with one quick experiment under my belt—a shrub, or drinking vinegar that my neighbor Bill shared with me—I've decided to tackle kimchi, the ubiquitous pickled and red-peppered cabbage dish found at every meal in Korea. My goal is to make a kimchi similar to the one I had as a foreign exchange student in that country, made by my host mother and stored in earthen crocks on the flat roof of her home.

Kimchi ingredients.

I've found a commercial one that's very reminscent of hers, the Napa Kimchi made by Choi's Kimchi, a local company that began when founder Chong Choi took his kimchi, which he'd been making for his family and sharing with his neighbors, to sell at the farmers' market. Starting with that profile, for my recipe search I decided to start slow, with a super simple recipe by Julia Moskin of the New York Times that she adapted from Tart and Sweet by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler.

While it worked like a charm—No death! No explosions!—and was quite delicious, it's not as spicy or quite as vinegary as my Korean mother's (or Choi's). So I'll keep looking for recipes that will measure up to those fond and drool-inducing memories.

Kimchi, and lots of it!

In the meantime, these experiments mean that I've got jars of the pickled, cabbagey Korean condiment resting comfortably in my fridge. Julia's recipe produced about three quarts or so of the stuff, and since my family isn't in the "let's have kimchi for every meal" groove, in order to clear space for the next batch I've had to come up with some creative uses for it.

This kimchi fried rice recipe is cobbled together from several online sources and is terrific all on its own or when combined with various proteins—think tofu, leftover chicken, even seared slices of beef. You can cook up the rice just for the recipe, but if you have leftover rice sitting in the fridge, I think it actually works better.

And I'll keep you updated on my quest for that kimchi of my dreams!

Kimchi Fried Rice

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 c. bacon, chopped
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped fine
2 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 c. kimchi (with juice)
2 c. enoki mushrooms (or other mushrooms)
4 c. cooked jasmine rice
1-2 Tbsp. sesame oil, to taste
1 Tbsp. fish sauce, to taste
2 Tbsp. gochujang, to taste (available at Asian or specialty grocers)
Salt, to taste
4 eggs

In large skillet or wok, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add bacon and sauté until it starts to render its fat. Add onions and sauté till tender. Add garlic and stir to warm it, then add kimchi and mushrooms. Sauté until tender. Add rice and sesame oil and combine well. When it’s warm and starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, taste it for seasoning and add fish sauce and gochujang, as well as salt, if desired.

When ready to serve, fry eggs separately in a bit more vegetable oil, keeping yolks soft and runny. Put the fried rice in a bowl and top each serving with a fried egg (or two).

Serves four.

Photo of kimchi crocks (onggi) from Wikimedia.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Food News: Farm Bill Reboot; Edible Portland Expires Under Cloud

Today Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer is hosting a broad range of experts and stakeholders for a forum titled “A Call for Reform: Fix the Farm Bill,” that focuses on the need to create a more visionary, equitable and cost-effective farm bill. The forum features Michael Pollan (top photo, center), author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who is delivering the keynote, followed by a panel discussion with a group of policy experts to discuss their ideas for the reform that he's calling The Food and Farm Act.

In an interview about his re-envisioned farm bill on the website Civil Eats, the congressman said that "we continue to pay too much to the wrong people to grow the wrong food in the wrong places" and that he's working to reform subsidies to support innovation and small-to-midsize farmers rather than large corporate agribusinesses.

As he told Good Stuff NW in an interview earlier this year, he's building a coalition of consumers, farmers and non-profits to provide "support for protecting the environment, water quality, habitat [and] things that help the farmer and have broader social and economic benefit. The big issue is that all the attention and subsidy is skewed toward things that don’t need it, and shortchanges things that do, upon which we’re heavily reliant."

One unique element of his efforts is a comic book, "The Fight for Food: Why You Deserve a Better Farm Bill," that explains why the Farm Bill matters to people who care about their food and talks about how they can get involved.

Read my interview with Rep. Blumenauer, part of "The Future of Our Food" series. Photo courtesy Rep. Earl Blumenauer's office.

* * *

Sad news came today that Alex Corcoran, owner and publisher of Edible Portland magazine, has announced that the magazine will cease publication after the current November/December issue.

Corcoran bought the magazine last year after Ecotrust, which had owned the publication since its inception in 2006, decided to cease publication after the Spring 2015 issue and put it up for sale. At the time that Corcoran bought it, Eric Thorkilsen, then-CEO of Edible Media, said, "Alex has a great track record of success managing Edible publications, starting with Edible Rhody [Edible Rhode Island] and continuing with Edible Seattle. His capacity to immerse himself in the local food community—forming solid relationships with small businesses and attracting a devoted readership—suggests a great future for Edible Portland."

The first edition under Corcoran's leadership was the September, 2016, issue. Corcoran initially posted an ad for the sale of the magazine, but because of contractual disagreements with Ecotrust, he has pulled the ad.

In an e-mail to Good Stuff NW, Carolyn Holland, VP of Engagement at Ecotrust, said that Corcoran "does not have the rights to sell the magazine. He has been in breach of his contract with Ecotrust since 2015 when he signed on to assume the license. While we were working with him to give him time to get it on track, now that he has decided to fold, the rights to magazine will revert to [Ecotrust]."

Mr. Corcoran declined a request to comment for this post.

* * *

UPDATE: I received the following update today (11/28) from Carolyn Holland at Ecotrust:

"Free Range Media, publisher of Edible Portland, is ceasing publication of the award-winning magazine at the end of 2017. According to a previous agreement, Edible Portland will return to its original owner and publisher, Ecotrust, which originally launched the magazine in 2006 as one of the first Edibles in the nation. Ecotrust will work with the national media organization Edible Communities, licensor of more than 90 Edible magazines across the United States and Canada, to find a new home for the magazine. Edible Portland boasts a devoted readership of more than 75,000 and has a solid base of both advertisers and contributors. Ecotrust is committed to supporting a smooth transition in ownership. If you are interested in becoming the publisher of Edible Portland, please contact Carolyn Holland, Ecotrust’s VP of Engagement, at 503.467.0754."

Read my recent article for Edible Portland, "Big Milk: Big Issues for Local Communities."

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that Edible Seattle was for sale. It is not. Corcoran is inviting a new publisher to start an Edible magazine in the South Sound area.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Green Bean Casserole, Redux

I just realized that Thanksgiving is next week, not two or three weeks in the future as I had somehow convinced myself. Luckily I contacted my turkey connection this last week, congratulating myself for being so ahead of the game. (Oops!) So now the long list of possible sides is being compiled, to be added to the "must haves" of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and pie, and the voting and deal-making is getting fierce. Real Good Food contributor Jim Dixon's recipe for reconstructed green bean casserole, using still-in-season foraged chanterelles, is high on the list.

Green Bean "Casserole"

I can't eat the old school version anymore, but I came up with this homage that provides the same flavors but tastes much better. If you can get chanterelles, use them, but any mushrooms will work.

Slice a pound of mushrooms and put them in a skillet with some salt but no added fat [or oil] over medium high heat. The mushrooms will start giving up water right away, and you want to cook them in their own juices until it's almost gone before adding a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. (If we're having the usual November weather, chanterelles can be very wet, and this technique concentrates the flavor and improves the texture. It also works with most mushrooms.)

After you add the oil, add a finely chopped shallot and a good shot of dry sherry (a good fino is perfect). Let that bubble away for a few minutes, then add a pound of green beans that you've cooked in boiling, salted water for 3 minutes and drained. Pour in about a half cup of heavy cream, bring to a boil, and cook for a maybe 5 minutes or until the cream has thickened and the beans are tender. Adjust the salt, add some black pepper if you feel like it, and serve topped with crispy fried onions from a can (Lars is a Danish brans sold at New Seasons that's better then the ubiquitous French's). You could make your own or substitute bread crumbs or nuts, but I think some kind of crunchy topping is required. Have a great Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Farm Bulletin: The Roots of Ayers Creek Farm

The following post was written by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm for Big Picture Agriculture, an excellent blog about trends and developments in agriculture, food and farming.

"Anthony Boutard, born in Massachusetts, grew an early appreciation for plants from his father who was a renowned botanist. Educated as a biologist with a graduate degree in Forestry, Anthony and his wife Carol moved out to Oregon in the early 1990s for Anthony to work with a company called 1000 Friends of Oregon, which focuses on land use and landscape preservation. After a few years in Portland, Anthony and Carol decided to take up farming and purchased a 144-acre working farm out in Gaston, about 30 miles from the city. Their philosophy is simple: to grow what tastes good and does well on their land."

The photos below are "lantern slides" taken c.1900 in a beautifully rugged region of Switzerland. Anthony assumes that the photos were taken by his Danish great-grandfather, Ernest Boutard, an engineer who had a patent partnership in Copenhagen, but whose heart was at home in the mountains. He studied at the Polytechnic in Zürich. His grandmother's family was from Graubünden, Switzerland.

[Anthony provided the captions to go with the photos. Click on a photo to see a full size version.]

Käs wägen in der alp hütte ("Cheese weighing in the Alpen hut"). The man weighing the cheese is carrying the cheese to market in the next slide in the series. This places the hut near the village of Schwand, in the Canton Oberwalden. [Anthony notes: "The cheeses of Switzerland remain exceptional because they still adhere to the practice of moving the herds to the high pastures where the lactating cows graze on the alpine flora, the same intensely flavored vegetation used to produce the amaros (kräuterlikörs), bitter liqueurs that I savor as much as the cheeses."]

Öberefahre, Appenzell. The Öberefahre is the Appenzell procession celebrating the move of the herd from the valley to the high pasture. This Swiss tradition of shifting the herd to the complex vegetation of the high alpine pastures during the summer months gives Swiss cheeses their distinctive character. The hornless Appenzeller goats are led by children, followed by three cows with large, carefully tuned ceremonial bells and led by the herder with his decorated milk bucket slung over the shoulder. Today the procession follows the exact same pattern as seen in this photo, but with a bit more pizazz for the tourists.

Harvesting wine grapes, most likely in the canton Ticino. Note the tile roof on the buildings. Ticino, bordering Italy, is the mildest region of Switzerland.

A building for storing grains. The flat rocks between the granary and its supports keep rodents from entering the stores. Yes, that is the Matterhorn in the background.

Strada per Promontogno ("Road through Promontogno). This is the Val Bregaglia in the Canton Graubünden (Grisons). The mountain peak is Piz Badile which sits on the border between Italy and Switzerland. The trees are chestnuts in bloom, so this photo was taken in late June. Chestnuts only grown in the southern-most valleys of Switzerland. This large Canton extends from Lichtenstein to Italy, and has three official languages: German, Romansh and Italian.

Ziegenherde bei der sennhütte ("Goat herd near the goat dairy"). Somewhere in the Canton Graubünden. Horned goats are typical of the canton. Two breeds, ‘Chamois-colored' and 'Grisons Striped’, are endemic to the canton. I love the chaos that attends the group of goats while a doe milked by her herder in the midst of it all.

Engelberg am Wegr. a. Schwand ("Engelberg on Wayside to Schwand"). Canton Obwalden with the Uri Alps in the background. The peak Grosse Spannort on Right. The peak of Brunnistock is on the left. The man weighing the cheese is now carrying the wheels to market along the footpath to Engelberg, an alpine town and the site of a Benedictine Monastary. (The mountains in the background remind me of the Dents du Midi.)

Alpsegen auf Belalp ("Alp blessing on Belalp"). The chapel is still there. The Canton Valais is a predominantly Catholic canton. Note the rosaries. It was tradition to have an open-air blessing when the people and their livestock returned to their alp, the mountain pasture. The term “alp” properly refers to these pastures and not the peaks, but language has a way of drifting.

Thanks to Big Picture Agriculture and Anthony Boutard for allowing me to share this essay.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Big Milk: Big Issues for Local Communities

Giant factory farms are moving to Oregon, bringing with them concerns about our rural communities, the environment, and how we want to grow our economy, as well as challenging long-held traditions of our state’s agriculture as one based on small, family-scale farms. This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Edible Portland magazine that was picked up by Civil Eats (full article here).

It’s important to respect “the cow-ness of the cow,” says Oregon dairyman Jon Bansen, a member of the farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley. He's quoting sustainable farm guru Joel Salatin in explaining what differentiates his pasture-raised cows from those living their lives in closed buildings on a factory farm.

Monmouth dairy farmers Jon and Juli Bansen.

“It turns out that some things get more efficient with size, but biology doesn’t,” he says of the large mega-dairies that have taken up residence near the small Columbia River town of Boardman at the east end of the Columbia River Gorge. “To be standing on concrete, fed high levels of grain, treated like a widget instead of a biological being—it shortens their lifespan.”

Animal welfare isn’t the only reason to worry about mega-dairies. Another cost of these giant factory farms is to Oregon’s small dairies. In 2001, mega-dairy Threemile Canyon Farms, a 70,000-cow facility near Boardman, began supplying milk to the Tillamook County Creamery Association’s manufacturing plant nearby. One of the results of this move was that an average of nine family-owned Oregon dairy farms went out of business each month between 2002 and 2007.

Why did this happen?

“Mega-dairies flood the market with milk, driving down milk prices and making it increasingly difficult for family farmers to stay afloat,” Bansen wrote in an editorial in the Salem Statesman Journal.

Mega-dairies also degrade the lives of local communities. Bansen wrote that “the ways in which family dairy farmers and mega-dairies contribute to a community are drastically different. When something breaks, family farmers typically buy parts from the local store. When their animals need veterinary attention, they call the local vet. They support their feed stores, tractor-supply stores, and more. After a hard day on the farm, family farmers often engage in their community, schools, civic groups, and churches.”

Bansen emphasized that employees at mega-dairies have neither the time nor the money to spend in their communities because of low wages and the long hours demanded of them. And any equipment needed at the dairy is bought from the cheapest (mostly non-local) sources, and profits are sent off to corporate, often out-of-state, offices.

Waste and Groundwater

To give an idea of how large these mega-dairies are, all you have to do is refer to their corporate websites. Threemile Canyon’s cows—consisting of 25,000 milk cows, 30,000 replacement heifers, 7,000 steers, and an 8,000-calf nursery—produce 165,000 gallons of milk per day. If you look at a satellite view of the property, you see that the buildings the cows live in are so vast that employees have to drive to get from one end to the other.

Waste runoff at Threemile Canyon.

The amount of waste that these 70,000 cows produce is also mind-boggling—estimates are around 436 million gallons of liquid manure every year. One of the several open-air, double-lined waste pits, called lagoons, covers more than 20 acres. While these large facilities have permits for discharging waste under the Clean Water Act, a state statute (ORS 468B-025) prohibits any of it from entering “waters of the state.”

“It says in very broad terms that no person in Oregon shall place or cause to be placed waste where it may enter waters of the state by any means,” says Wym Matthews, fertilizer program manager of the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). “There’s the broad thought in Oregon that folks should be responsible and not allow material they are managing—waste or not—to get into the waters and cause a problem.”

In other states, leaks from lagoons have endangered the drinking water of cities that rely on rivers as a water source, and manure from the spills has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of fish in waterways. Recently, a major liquid manure spill from a dairy operation in the Tillamook area caused the closure of Tillamook Bay due to contamination from fecal coliform, which had a significant economic impact on commercial oyster growers in the area.

The thing that worries Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF), an organization that supports socially and environmentally responsible family-scale agriculture in Oregon, is that much of the reporting and monitoring is left up to the operations themselves.

Cow standing in waste at Threemile Canyon.

“The reality is that it’s not possible for there to be no discharge at all, so it’s a bit of an aspirational permit, if you will,” Maluski says. “They often rely on the CAFOs themselves to report a problem because [ODA inspectors] visit them typically once a year. Or, if someone says, ‘Hey they’re spreading manure out there, and it looks like it’s going in the creek’ on a Saturday, if ODA can’t get out there until Monday, they might not see anything.”

And now that another mega-dairy—30,000-cow Lost Valley Farm, just 30 miles from the Threemile Canyon operation—has received a permit from the ODA, farm organizations like FoFF and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP), as well as consumer protection groups like the Center for Food Safety (CFS), are on high alert.

The land occupied by these two factory farms is one of three sites in Oregon designated as a Groundwater Management Area (GWMA), so named because nitrate concentrations in many area groundwater samples exceed the federal safe drinking water standard. “What’s so concerning about putting another mega-dairy in an existing groundwater management area is that the Lower Umatilla Basin was designated in the ’90s as a place where there were already too many nitrates in the water—water people use for drinking,” says Amy van Saun, an attorney for CFS. “This is only going to make it worse.”

Wym Matthews doesn’t disagree. “I would describe the groundwater-monitoring well data from the Lower Umatilla GWMA as mixed,” he says. “There are some wells that are staying stagnant and not getting better or worse, some that are getting better, and some that are getting worse.”

Open-air waste lagoon at Threemile Canyon.

Asked how the ODA could issue a permit in such a sensitive area, Matthews says that the only way a permit could be issued is if the agencies believe that the permit is restrictive enough so that if there was discharge, it would violate the discharge standard. For Lost Valley, the department has set the discharge standard at zero.

“How can the state say yes to [Lost Valley Farm], which is clearly going to add a risk of nitrates leaching into the groundwater, when you’ve already got an area that’s impaired and not getting any better?” Maluski asks. “When they were digging their manure lagoons for that facility, they actually hit groundwater at 10 feet, so they had to get a special water right to pump groundwater away from their lagoons. It’s just absurd. Obviously, they’re going to have a couple of liners, but if those liners fail, you’ve got a very serious direct contamination of the groundwater.”

Emissions and Air Pollution

As many restrictions as there are related to the potential release of waste from these industrial farms into groundwater and nearby waters, there are no such restrictions on the very real emissions that are released into the air. Nearly a decade ago, the Oregon legislature passed a bill to address air emissions from these mega-dairies. Called the Oregon Dairy Air Quality Task Force, it was comprised of stakeholders from across the political spectrum, including representatives from government, academic institutions, the dairy industry, and public interest groups.

Warning sign at a confined facility.

The task force studied the current scientific literature relating to air pollutants, such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter emitted by these operations.

“Ten years ago, that task force came up with some really strong recommendations for how the state could move forward with some rules around air quality in order to get ahead of the problem of these operations coming in and having a lack of regulations to mitigate emissions,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, a member of the task force and the current CEO of SRAP. “And 10 years later, none of those recommendations went anywhere despite the fact that it was a consensus list of recommendations.”

Kimbirauskas says that at SRAP, which works across the country with communities that are directly impacted by factory farms, she’s seen what these operations do to rural communities. “It’s just like every other extractive industry,” she says, comparing factory farms to extraction industries like mining and industrial timber that threaten forests and wild lands.

“This is the same model with a different face,” Kimbirauskas continues. “It’s the idea that these out-of-state companies or corporations can come in, and they can call themselves family farms. But you can put lipstick on a cow, and it’s still a factory farm cow. They come in, and they’re extracting local resources. They’re extracting the water, they’re extracting the local wealth, and they’re sending it off to faraway places. They’re externalizing all of their costs of production, first and foremost, on the local community, on the local environment, and on the state.

“If we’re not careful, and we’re not paying attention to these issues now,” she warns, “by the time it does become in our face, it’s going to be too late, and what we love about Oregon agriculture and the local farm economy will be threatened.”

Read the rest of the article raising questions about the "closed loop" systems at these mega-dairies and the fears of local governments that their hands are tied when it comes to the siting of these large industrial facilities in their communities.

Top photo from the East Oregonian. Photo of Bansens from Organic Valley Co-operative. Photos of Threemile Canyon Farms from Friends of Family Farmers.