Friends of Family Farmers takes legal action to stem the rising tide of factory farms

In September, Friends of Family Farmers joined Willamette Riverkeeper, the Farmers Against Foster Farms (local coalition in Scio), and Center for Food Safety in a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for permitting JS Ranch in Scio, OR insufficiently to protect water quality. Under the currently permitted plan, there is not enough care taken to ensure that the proposed chicken concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) – which would be the largest in the state with over 500,000 birds on site at a time, and 3.5 Million birds in the course of a year– does not pose a risk to ground and surface water contamination. At the urging of farmers and concerned neighbors in the area we were forced to take a closer look at this situation. What we saw made it clear this action is necessary.

Read the full text of the lawsuit here

The Situation:

The potential for pollution of this facility should have been taken more seriously in the permitting process. This is the largest proposed facility in Oregon and there are plans for other Foster Farms chicken facilities in the state. The biggest threat here is that this is not an isolated incident, this is the beginning of a trend. This is not a vendetta against a particular farmer or a preference for the needs of one community, it is an opportunity to set the tone for Oregon’s agricultural priorities as more and more corporations target our state. This trend toward industrial mega-farms started with dairy and is expanding into chicken. We are at risk of becoming a haven for industrial agribusiness by permitting this factory farm. The damage that is possible will take decades to undo, and it is not worth sacrificing productive, sustainable, locally focused farms in the area and the vibrant rural communities of Oregon to make ourselves a destination for multinational corporations. We need to set the precedent that Oregon takes its water quality seriously and prioritizes the long term viability of the whole ecosystem including the other farmers in the area, fragile wildlife, and the wellbeing of surrounding residents.

JS Ranch is a facility that would raise 3.5 Million chickens annually in total confinement outside Scio, OR, for use exclusively by the Foster Farms corporation. It is located less than 500 yards from the Santiam River and is on the flood plain only 5 feet above the river. This means that there is a direct flood risk that if the river swells over its banks, this facility will cause irreparable damage to the river and the livelihoods and communities that rely on it. There is also historical data showing that the Santiam River has regularly migrated. By issuing a 10 year permit for a facility of this scale and type so close to the river, ODA is setting up the Santiam River for future pollution as the river naturally changes its banks. According to the current permit, there was no risk of surface water contamination. It is ridiculous and dangerous to ignore the factors laid out above and puts the river at risk.

The proposed facility plans would also not be able to accommodate the reality of the site and would only prevent surface and groundwater contamination under completely ideal circumstances.  In the plans, the chicken barns themselves are not lined, and have a proposed 4 inch compacted native soil floor. This is not sufficient (by common sense and many other states’ laws on facilities like this) to prevent groundwater contamination from the volume of chicken waste produced.  Although this is a “dry litter” facility, waste leaves the chickens in liquid form. It is not dry immediately. Waste storage facilities are required to have a thick concrete floor, but the waste will seep into the unlined barns between cleanings. There is also significant risk of flooding from average annual rainfall for Scio given the size of the proposed stormwater runoff areas. This will make this unlined barn scenario more dangerous to water quality in normal conditions, let alone in the age of climate change where we anticipate worsening storms ahead.

It is our duty as farmers to hold our own sector accountable and make sure that we are stewarding the land in our care. No farm is a closed system and we have to think about the viability of the whole system when permitting facilities like this. This lawsuit specifically deals with the threats to water quality posed by a facility like this in its current location, under current permit conditions, but that is by far not the only concern we have heard about factory farms moving into Oregon. There are also concerns about the quantity of water used (without water rights under the stock water exemption), air emissions from the facility, and the impact that industrial agriculture has on the food system at large. 

Previous Actions:

This lawsuit was not our first choice of action to take, but rather a last resort when the agencies involved repeatedly dismissed our and the community’s concerns. We have been hearing from farmers in that area about the impact that this would have on their farm, their community, and quality of life for over a year now. We have been monitoring the situation and looking for all the ways that we can intercede in the process. This is not the first action we chose to take and not the first time we have raised our voice on this issue. We work with ODA on many fronts and we value them as a partner in many ways, but this was the necessary next step to protect Oregon’s agricultural viability and future.

Here is what we have done to date:

  • CAFO Permit Public Comment Period: In October of 2021, we made public comments urging ODA not to issue the permit for this facility. We also hosted a public comment form to help the local coalition more easily gather input from impacted community members.
  • CAFO Permit Public Hearing: FoFF raised public awareness and helped turn people out to attend the public hearing for this CAFO permit in April of 2022.
  • Petition to Reconsider Permit: The permit was granted despite public outcry in May of 2022. In June of 2022, FoFF joined partners in filing a petition to ODA to reconsider the permit based on the same facts laid out in this lawsuit. This request was denied by ODA.
  • Current Lawsuit: Since none of the actions of our supporters, the local community and the dozens of other groups interested in protecting the environment and viability of the surrounding farmland have been able to stop this unexamined and insufficient permit from moving forward, FoFF joined the group filing this lawsuit.

Next Steps:

There is not a lot of action to take at the moment!  Now that this suit has been filed, we wait for the case to be tried by our legal partners, and provide testimony and opportunities for impacted communities to speak as needed. Make sure your email subscription status is up to date to get alerts for the next steps of this important work!

We do this work on behalf of you, our community. When we hear of a threat to the livelihoods, health, and viability of farmers in Oregon, we work with our partners and activate our network to address it in the most pragmatic and effective way we can. If this is meaningful to you, show your support by making a donation to FoFF. Small donations from individuals make our activism possible by giving us flexibility and unrestricted support.  Donate $20 to support work like this in your community.

Sometimes that means taking legal action like this, but it also means bringing new legislative efforts forward like the bill we are working on with our partners at the Stand Up to Factory Farms Coalition: A Moratorium on all Large Tier 2 CAFO permits in Oregon. We clearly have a long way to go to properly regulate the environmental impact of facilities like this one, and we need to pause the permit process until the system- wide impact of these factory farms can be addressed. Read our policy report and follow along with us this session to learn more!