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When is a farm too big?

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

When is a farm too big? That is the question in front of the Oregon Legislature with Senate Bill 85. Would 2,500 cows or 125,000 chickens qualify as an operation that is too large? In Oregon it might be the new threshold. Senate Bill 85, initially sought to study the impact of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on the state. A recent amendment attached a moratorium on all new Tier 2 CAFO permits for 8 years and until the study is complete. Operations needing a Tier 2 permit are larger than 2,500 cows or 125,000 chickens. An additional amendment, narrows the moratorium to poultry operations and is set for a postponed work session on March 27th.

In an age, where farms have lived or died by the mantra, “Get big or get out,” the new cap is a bitter pill to swallow. Many farms have expanded in order to continue their businesses and meet the rising costs of inputs and labor, taxes, and regulatory pressure. Even some smaller farms oppose SB 85, fearing the moratorium will expand to include smaller operations in the future.

In Oregon, only 14 of the 200 large dairies are larger than 2,500 cows and only 4 of the 26 large chicken plants produce more than 125,000 chickens. However, existing operations would struggle to grow in their communities and that was stated during the hearing in early March. From Eastern Oregon, State Senator Lynn Findley, R-Vale, shared that SB 85 poses an economic threat to his district because 20% of the state’s industrial animal operations are located in Malheur County.

These large operations are villainized as industrial or factory farms, but other descriptors are more appropriate. Many are family farms, local employers, and community members. However, for many successful farm families, surviving has required growth into large operations. Many areas of Oregon benefit from the economic stimulus brought by CAFOs, and easily justify the negative externalities that may appear.

Oregon Farm Bureau President Greg Addington testified, “We have slowly forced agricultural operations to get larger to survive. Yet now we're here talking about limiting how big a farm can get or how many animals we think are appropriate. It's a slippery slope in my opinion.”

Other farmers fervently support SB 85, with Farmers Against Foster Farms leading the charge due to a local issue. An influx of prospective poultry operations in the western Oregon town of Scio, has fueled community opposition against “Industrial Chicken Factories.” J-S Ranch has proposed 12 barns to house their annual production of 3.4 million chickens, Evergreen Ranch will produce 4.5 million chickens per year, and Randy Hiday has a similar proposal. Local resentment and frustration has leaked into the state-level government to resolve the issue.

Under current law, local communities and neighbors cannot oppose CAFO permits. Other use-permits and zoning changes include local input, but CAFOs are a state-issued permit with no local opinion sought. A CAFO permit in the state of Oregon is approved and issued by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

A working group convened in the Fall of 2022 identified the need for county-level governments and communities to have a say on CAFO permits and conditions. The cannabis management at the local level was presented as an example to be followed. Community input means that local knowledge of resources is included in the discussion including knowledge of water and labor availability.

100 cows or 10,000 cows, which operation is too big? The state legislature voting with a blanket answer to this question is unfair to farmers and communities. Farmers need to be able to decide the best path forward for their operation without being unfairly regulated by general state-level restrictions. Additionally, communities need to be able to have a voice on the future of their neighborhoods. Local governments have a better chance of recognizing the role agriculture can play in their hometowns for good (as in the case of Malheur County) or maybe for not (as is stated by many citizens in Scio). Let local communities have a voice that works with and for local farmers, and avoid additional state regulations.

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