MORO, Ore. — Azure Farms and Sherman County officials agreed Thursday to try a new weed control plan that would allow the farm to retain its organic certification. The agreement came during a two-hour county court meeting that saw approximately 300 people, more than one-sixth of the county’s population, file into the high school gym.
The county has warned it will ask the Oregon Department of Agriculture to quarantine the 1,922-acre organic farm if it doesn’t control rampant noxious weeds that neighboring wheat farmers say are spreading on to their ground. The local weed control supervisor said the county will spray herbicide and bill the farm for the work if the problem is not dealt with.
The situation, which has been a local issue since at least 2006, came to a head this spring when local farmers renewed complaints that Azure’s property is filled with Rush Skeleton weed, Canada Thistle, Bindweed, White Top and Morning Glory. Conventional farmers, especially those who grow certified seed, said weeds from Azure can contaminate their crops and increase their input costs due to additional spraying.
For Azure Farms, however, spraying conventional herbicides would cause it to lose valuable organic certification for three years after the last application.
Azure Farms is part of Azure Standard, a major distributor of organic products, and the company’s first response — a video that urged a social media uprising against the county — didn’t win them any local friends. County officials counted approximately 57,000 emails from around the world, critical of their proposed action. The county courthouse also shut down its phone system after being deluged with protests.
At the May 17 meeting, however, Azure representatives said they regret the conflict.
“We have every intention of living peaceably with all of our neighbors,” farm manager Nathan Stelzer said.
“I’m deeply sorry if we hurt you guys,” he added later.
His brother, David Stelzer, CEO of Azure Standard, said he authorized the social media campaign but doesn’t have a Facebook account himself and didn’t understand the implications.
“I do apologize for unleashing social media on the county,” he said. “I am sorry.”
But the brothers made it clear they don’t want to use weed control methods that will cause them to lose organic certification. They proposed a combination of tillage, mowing and organic products to do the job. County weed district Supervisor Rod Asher said he will work with Azure in concert with farmers, university weed experts and perhaps organic consultants.
Some of the conventional farmers in the area are skeptical. During the meeting, several said Azure Farms should simply spray herbicide, clean up its fields and resume organic operations in three years.
“This has gone on long enough,” said Bryan Cranston, who grows certified wheat seed adjacent to Azure Farms. He said the farm should use Milestone, a powerful herbicide that will kill the weeds.
Grower Chris Moore, who also farms next to Azure property, said the time he spends on weed abatement has gone from hours to days, and he’s losing productive ground. He said “half measures” by Azure won’t be sufficient.
“If you do undertake it, control every weed,” he said. “Don’t let it go to seed. If you do that, I don’t think you’ll have a problem with your neighbors.”
Jean Luxford-Hubert was blunt.
“What we’re looking at here is bad farming practices that have gone on for a number of years,” she said. “This is pure and simple poor management, poor soil control, poor conservation of the fields.
“You need to fix this problem because you’re encroaching on your neighbors,” she told the Stelzers. “That’s not the way it should be in an agricultural community.”
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League in Portland, said Sherman County is one of the state’s key wheat producing regions. Wheat is among the state’s leading export products, with much of it going to Asia, and the area’s reputation for high quality is at risk, Rowe said.
“Weed in wheat is a quality standard that is measured,” he told the county court. “I hope you bring Azure into compliance. There may be different ways to attain compliance, but control is what’s important.”
Afterward, Nathan Stelzer said it appeared most of the conventional farmers in the area want to play “hardball” with Azure Farms and force them to spray. Stelzer said he is committed to working with Asher, the weed district supervisor, on the farm’s proposed weed management plan.
Rowe, of the Wheat Growers League, said a list of weed control practices such as Azure proposed is not enough. The problem must be monitored, with some way found to measure results, he said.
“We’ll have to see what they come up with,” he said.
County Commissioner Tom McCoy said the county wants a workable plan that will control weeds before they go to seed and spread to neighbors.
“We don’t want to spray an organic farm if we can possibly get around it,” he said.