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Front Page > Issues > 2005>September

Trouble down on the "farm"

By Shirley Wentworth

Sweating beneath a 100-degree eastern Oregon sun, a group of dairy workers took to the Hermiston streets to call attention to what they call poor working conditions at Threemile Canyon Farms.

Threemile Canyon, a 55,000 cow factory farm, a few miles from the Columbia River near Boardman, about 30 miles from Hermiston, is reportedly the largest dairy in the world.

The dairy seems to have flown under the radar into sparsely-populated Morrow County, where the farm sits on a bone-dry monotonous stretch of landscape, invisible to Interstate-84 travelers.

Initially, according to early newspaper reports, the farm came into Morrow County taking about a 5,000- to 10,000 herd with capacity to grow to 20,000 cows. The herd has now grown to about 55,000 and is permitted to allow 90,000-plus cows.

Workers previously complained about minimum-wage violations, long working days without breaks and animal abuse practices such as the bludgeoning to death of unwanted male calves with hammers. Threemile Canyon settled a lawsuit with farm workers for $70,000 last year. The farm is in the midst of a second lawsuit, which accuses the dairy of gender bias. A third lawsuit looms: Arturo Sepulveda, 30, claims he was fired because of his support for the union and for the women who filed the gender-bias suit, and is considering filing his own suit. Workers have also complained of safety hazards, which have resulted in 12 citations from Oregon OSHA, as well as punishment for engaging in union organization efforts.

At Saturday’s Aug. 20 rally, about 50 workers filed down Highway 395 bearing the red and white flag of the United Farm Workers, chanting slogans such as “We want justice now,” and “People united can’t be divided.” They carried signs such as “Clean up 3-mile farm,” “Derechos del Campesinos” (Rights of the Farm workers), “Abajo Columbia Dairy” (Down with Columbia Dairy), drawing curious looks from passers-by and a few inquiries from locals who seem to be unaware of the controversy at the farm.

Workers have also been complaining of respiratory distress, burning eyes, sore throats and other ailments.

U.S. Forest Service researchers recently reported that pollution from the eastern side of the state has penetrated the Columbia Gorge, damaging plants and rock surfaces with acid fog and rain, and are also investigating ammonia concentrations found in the Hell’s Canyon area where ancient Indian rock art and sensitive lichens are being affected. With its 55,000 cows producing a ton of manure a minute — or nonstop ammonia emission — Threemile Canyon is suspected to be a major pollution source along with Portland General Electric’s antiquated coal-burning power plant that operates according to outdated 30-year-old specifications.

Earlier this year, in a report to the Environmental Protection Agency, Threemile Canyon stated it releases at least 850 tons of ammonia a year and put its ceiling at 2,850 tons annually. However, Kendra Kimbirauskas, a Sierra Club volunteer who specializes in factory farm issues, said that in addition to ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and the methane gas itself — which are the three toxic materials of most concern — there are another 160 identifiable toxins in cow manure.

“Not only is any of it being regulated — or monitored — but we don’t even know what acceptable levels are,” she said.

“This is not a farm — it is an industry and it should be regulated as an industry,” she said, referring to state laws that classify the dairy complex as agricultural and therefore exempt from state laws governing industrial air pollution. “Today is a rally for clean air. It’s a message to the [Department of Environmental Quality].”

The workers are pushing for a contract with Threemile Canyon that will guarantee safe and humane working conditions, a living wage and freedom from the fear of being fired at whim, said Erik Nicholson, regional director of United Farm Workers. As the hike began, Nicholson said he got word that dairy management organized a last-minute dinner feed for workers. He also noted that farm supervisors followed and observed workers who participated in the march to the city park. He expects they will be individually pressured.

After the mile or so hike to the park, workers and other supporters paused to rally and support each other with speeches.

“We’re tired of the abuses — we’re tired of discrimination — we’re tired of the arrogance ... they don’t take us into account, we’re tired of the humiliation,” said one man in Spanish. “We don’t want any more pollution or any more abuses.”

Steve Witte, director of the Oregon Farm Worker Ministries, told the group he plans to take their stories to churches across the U.S.

“The journey we’re on is a spiritual journey because any time we are looking for dignity for human beings, we are on a spiritual journey,” he said. “We’re looking for justice for each and every human being.”

Workers are not the only ones worried about dairy conditions. Neighbors are beginning to wonder how the dairy grew to such gargantuan proportions and are worried about its impact on the environment.

According to statistics from the Dairy Farmers of Oregon’ website, there are 350 dairy farm families, 120,000 cows and 20 dairy processors in Oregon. The average farm size is 350 acres and 450 cows.

Jeanette Logan, a neighboring Gilliam County alfalfa grower, said she can’t endorse the farm.

“This farm is such a large industry. We’re small farmers and this does not represent anything we believe in,” she said. “They’re not being held accountable for what they’re doing.”

She described attending local planning commission meetings where the dairy’s plans to partner with Portland General Electric to produce energy out of methane gas were discussed. Those plans are rumoured to be stalled, but Logan said residents got no more than glib answers about the size and scale of the proposed biogas operation and its methodology for controlling toxic materials.

In addition to cow waste, the operation also produces waste from potatoes, mint and other crops grown at the farms. Threemile Canyon also operates a 140-acre compost facility that mixes its farm waste with Portland’s food waste, yard waste from Spokane County and paper sludge from North Pacific Paper Co. In an op-ed piece for The Oregonian, Threemile Canyon general manager Marty Myers took issue with The Oregonian’s report on the Gorge’s air pollution, arguing that the newspaper missed “a teaching moment about the complexities of cow manure, air quality standards and corporate responsibility.”

He wrote that the 93,000-acre farm system is building an on-site methane digester that will reduce toxic emissions and generate renewable power, and ingeniously asks what a responsible dairy operator should do while waiting for the federal government to establish air quality standards tailored for dairies, hog farms, cattle feedlots and poultry ranches.

A recently enacted California law requires that dairies with more than 1,000 cows be regulated for air pollution.

Although the farms bill themselves as green, sustainable and maintaining hig environmental standards, others have a different perspective.

Logan’s brother, Steve Sawyer, a Hermiston-based welder, has seen the operation up close and personal.
“I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely the most disgusting place I’ve ever worked on. I got sicker than a dog out there — it paralyzed me,” he said. “It would make a maggot puke.”

He described helping install a pipeline system to handle waste that was so ineffective that not only did potato waste sit in pipelines for months at a time, but ultimately had to be ripped apart. He said he also witnessed one of the dairy’s two waste lagoons blow up when methane gas got under the liner and combined with heat, causing an explosion. He worries that waste is getting into the aquifer.

Threemile Canyon Farms are jointly owned by R. D. Offutt of Fargo, North Dakota, one of the largest potato growers in the U.S., who also owns John Deere dealerships, a trucking company and a potato processing plant; and John Bos Family Farms, a mega dairy based in Bakersfield, Calif. Of the nine farms planned for the Threemile Canyon Farms site, two presently operate under the name Columbia River Dairies, and a third, called Willow Creek Dairy, is operated by Gary Te Velde, Bos’ son-in-law. Nicholson said that to date, Threemile Canyon has received $30 million in state subsidies and receives $200,000 a year in federal subsidies.

A half-million tons of manure produced each year on one site is a staggering amount for the mind to visualize. Numerous questions and issues remain, which can’t all be addressed in the available space in this month’s issue, but for now a major question is: What effect does this vast ammonia release have on humans? Animals? Air? Soil? Water? Food? And do regulatory authorities find out before or after the damage is done?

Shirley Wentworth is a freelance writer based in the West.


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Last Updated: September 6, 2005