Sherman County may order owners of a 2,000-acre organic farm to spray noxious weeds or face a possible quarantine.
Local wheat farmers say weeds spreading from Azure Farms, on the outskirts of Moro in north central Oregon, cost them money in the form of additional herbicide control. Most critically, growers of certified wheat seed say their crops will be worthless if contaminated by Rush Skeleton Weed, Canada Thistle, Morning Glory and White Top spreading from the farm.
Spraying the weeds with Milestone or other herbicides, however, would cause the farm to lose organic certification for three years. Azure Standard, which operates Azure Farms, is a major distributor of organic products.
Sherman County gave the farm until May 22 to respond with a weed management plan. If not, the county will ask the Oregon Department of Agriculture to quarantine the farm.
The issue has blown up on social media.
The manager of Azure Farms, Nathan Stelzer, urged supporters to “Overwhelm the Sherman County representatives with your voice.” A video posted on the farm website called for people to express their outrage reportedly has resulted in hundreds of phone calls and thousands of emails to county officials.
The issue may come to a head Wednesday when the county’s Board of Commissioners takes up the issue. The county is expecting such a crowd that it moved the session from the courthouse to the Sherman County School gym, 65912 High School Loop, Moro, at 4 p.m.
“The school gym is the only site in Sherman County big enough to hold the expected crowd and we received permission to use the gym only if we delayed our meeting until after the students are dismissed,” Commissioner Tom McCoy said in an email.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Wheat Commission and several growers are meeting with the state agriculture Director Alexis Taylor, hoping to enlist the department’s support.
Oregon Tilth, which certifies organic operations, is calling for calm and urging the county to pause its enforcement timeline. Executive Director Chris Schreiner said Oregon Tilth hopes mediation can result in a weed management plan that allows Azure Farms to retain its certification while addressing concerns of neighboring farmers.
Wheat farmer Bryan Cranston, who grows certified seed next to Azure Farms, said its weed problems have gotten progressively worse over the years. Cranston said he spoke to Selzer and told him, “I don’t drift chemicals on you, I’d appreciate it if weeds don’t drift on me.”
Cranston said he told Selzer, “I grow seed wheat to garner more out of the market, you grow organic to garner more out of the market — we have a lot in common here.”
But he added, “You’re messing me up.”
Cranston estimated weed control in his wheat is costing him $12 per acre more than in the past. He said some weeds, especially skeleton weed, produce airborne seeds and can rapidly infect fields.
Another area farmer, Ryan Thompson, said the county needs to stand its ground on the weed issue.
“These guys are operating by their own set of rules,” he said. “They are not good stewards of the land. They are pretty much using religion and the fact that they’re organic to say our county laws and statutes don’t apply to them.”
The problem has been building for some time. Azure Farms appears to consist of three entities: A parent company, Ecclesia of Sinai at Dufur, in neighboring Wasco County; Azure Standard, in Dufur, which distributes organic products; and Azure Farms, the farmland near Moro, in Sherman County.
In a March 2 letter to Ecclesia of Sinai at Dufur, weed district Supervisor Rod Asher said the noxious weeds “have been found to be growing rampant and unchecked on your properties in Sherman County” and had to be destroyed.
Asher said Sherman County takes weed problems seriously. “The potential damage and economic loss caused by noxious weeds to an agricultural based community can be substantial,” he wrote.
The county warned that it would spray if the farm didn’t, and the cost for multiple surveys throughout the growing season would be billed to the farm as a lien on its property taxes.
Asher said the county could help identify weed, recommend control methods and herbicide products, and had a spray crew for hire if necessary.
In the business’s first response, a letter signed by Alfred Stelzer said Ecclesia of Sinai “is not subject to your direction.” In a three-page letter dated March 27, Stelzer said the farm will not allow any federal, state or county employees to trespass and “spray any toxic or poisonous substances at any time.”
Stelzer said the farm “made a covenant” to keep the “Common Law” of the bible. He cited Numbers 35:34, “which states that the land must not be defiled or polluted.” Stelzer, then released the video and social media plea to supporters, saying the county’s plan was “possibly to spray the whole farm with poisonous herbicides.”
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission, called the social media campaign “pretty inflammatory.”
The farm has since adopted a more conciliatory position. In a video posted May 12, Azure Standard CEO David Stelzer, the brother of Nathan, acknowledged the farm has “room for improvement.” He said one of the problems is that for the past five years, the family has been farming the Moro property “long distance” from Dufur, which is 48 miles away by vehicle.
David Stelzer said Azure is attempting to improve its ground through crop rotation and “companion planting” of various crops.
“Bio-diversity, a few weeds in the field, does not make a bad farmer,” he said.
Responding to comments he said have been made about the farm, he said it is not affiliated with a religion although they are a “family a faith.” He said Azure properly pays its taxes and provides a $6 million payroll. He said the farm’s wheat yields nearly meet the county average and is of high quality. Eventually, organic farming methods will be “dominant,” he said.