This County In Oregon Wants To Force Organic Farmers To Use Toxic Herbicides

Loss of organic certification, and disruption of the organic supply chain in the region and beyond, would be the likely result.

May 17, 2017
farm spraying herbicides on field
Ratikova/ Getty

David Stelzer has a 2,000-acre USDA-certified organic farm outside the town of Moro, Oregon, where he and his crew grow everything from asparagus and field peas to einkorn and wheat. The farm—called Azure Farm—is located 20 miles south of the Columbia River Gorge in north central Oregon and it has been in Stelzer’s family for 40 years. Part of a bulk organic food buying club called Azure Standard, it was certified organic 18 years ago. 

It’s not easy being an organic farmer—there are bugs and weeds to contend with, and sometimes you have to contend with them in very creative, labor-intensive ways. But soon, unless Stelzer figures out a “weed management plan” that satisfies the Sherman County weed district, all that work may be for naught.  

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That’s because the Sherman County weed district has threatened to quarantine Azure Farms and spray herbicides such as Escort and Milestone on it unless the farm comes up with a viable weed management plan by May 22nd. Both Escort and Milestone are prohibited chemical inputs under the USDA’s National Organic Program. 

Related: Two Huge Cases Of Organic Food Fraud Have Been Exposed This Month—Here's What You Should Know

The Sherman County weed district had been fielding complaints from local wheat farmers complaining that Azure Farm’s “noxious” weeds were spreading to their conventionally-farmed wheat. According to an article in ag weekly Capital Press, these weeds, which include Rush Skeleton Weed, Canada Thistle, Morning Glory, and White Top, have been costing the wheat farmers money “in the form of additional herbicide control.” But according to Azure marketing director David Cross, this is a circular argument. “The farmers are saying they don’t want weeds on our land because they don’t want weeds on their land, but they’ve already sprayed,” he notes. 

The USDA organic regulations require certified organic farms to control weeds via mulching, mowing, livestock grazing, hand weeding, mechanical cultivation, flame, heat, or mechanical means. If all of these efforts fail, natural biological or botanical substances can be used, according to a spokesperson at the USDA. In the past, Azure has controlled weeds primarily via mowing and cultivation, according to an FAQ on the farm's web site. "There are other things that we are planning to do...and that includes vinegar sprays as well as a comb weeder," reads the FAQ.   

According to Bruce Pokarney, director of communications at the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon law provides counties with the authority they need to require and enforce weed management by land owners—even if these land owners are USDA-certified organic. Sherman County has its own “weed control ordinance” but it does not mandate the use of chemical herbicides. 

If county authorities spray herbicides like Milestone or Roundup on Azure Farms, the farm’s USDA-organic standards will mostly certainly be revoked. 

Chris Schreiner, the executive director of Oregon Tilth, which certifies organic operations, is concerned that this may happen and has written a letter to Sherman County’s county commissioners, judge, and weed district supervisor Rod Asher to ask that they halt the current timeline for action. 

“Azure Farm Inc. has been certified organic for nearly two decades,” wrote Schreiner in his letter of May 15th. “They produce a significant volume of organic crops and are a major supplier to many certified organic handlers, processors and brokers. Loss of organic certification will have a significant adverse impact on Azure Farm’s economic livelihood and disrupt the organic supply chain in the region and beyond.” At the end of the letter, Schreiner also encourages the County to seek professional conflict resolution services with Stelzer. 

“In some ways, the parties are communicating past each other,” Schreiner tells me via phone from his Corvallis office. “There is not good communication happening. That’s why I asked in the letter that they seek professional mediation. Let’s get these people in the room together and clarify expectations!” 

Related: 13 Serious Health Conditions Studies Have Linked To Monsanto's Roundup

Our repeated calls and texts to weed district supervisor Rod Asher were unreturned and an e-mail to County commissioner Tom McCoy was not answered either.  
 
Cross is hopeful that it won’t come down to using chemical inputs. “We have a comprehensive weed management plan and we’re confident it will work. It doesn’t make sense to eradicate 2,000 acres of organic food,” says Cross. 

Bottom line: “A weed has never killed anyone,” says Cross. “The stuff in Roundup and in other pesticides kill people every day.” 

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