Sherman plows into weed issue

Brian Cranston, a farmer whose land borders Azure Farms in Moro, walks the fence line to point out where Canadian Thistle (twig he is holding) has taken root on his property, a  problem that he says is growing worse by the year. Cranston supports efforts by the Sherman County Court to enforce noxious weed eradication laws.

Photo by RaeLynn Ricarte.
Brian Cranston, a farmer whose land borders Azure Farms in Moro, walks the fence line to point out where Canadian Thistle (twig he is holding) has taken root on his property, a problem that he says is growing worse by the year. Cranston supports efforts by the Sherman County Court to enforce noxious weed eradication laws.

photo

David Stelzer, president of Azure, speaks with a reporter at the company’s office south of Dufur.

Ecclesia of Sinai, which owns the land used by Azure Farms, Inc., is using Old Testament verses as grounds to not recognize the authority of Sherman County to enforce removal of noxious weeds on about 2,000 acres in and around Moro.

“We have made a covenant to keep the Common Law of the Bible, wherein includes Numbers 35:34, which states that the land must not be defiled or polluted…” wrote Alfred Stelzer in a March 27 letter to the weed district.

He contends that God’s law supersedes man’s law and Ecclesia’s property has been dedicated to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Stelzer stated that Ecclesia will only work with the county’s weed district if its edicts are “in line with Yahweh’s word (Matthew 22:37-40), where it will not be killing our fellow man, but bringing forth life.”

Yahweh is a form of the Hebrew name of God used in the Bible.

In his reply to a demand by Sherman County officials that Ecclesia enact a weed management plan, Stelzer wrote: “There are corporate entities that write statutory laws pretending to do good and protect people and use their judicial courts to enforce statutory law, but in the process, end up killing thousands of people. That is stink in Yahweh’s eyes.”

David Stelzer, president of Azure, which is headquartered in Dufur, said Alfred is a relative and Ecclesia is his company’s landlord, a separate entity from the organic farming operation.

“I have requested multiple times that correspondence be sent to us,” he said. “To people on the outside the church elders would look like weirdos for what they wrote.”

AZURE ISSUES

Rod Asher, the county’s weed district supervisor, informed property owner Eccelsia via an April 27 letter that the control practices used by Azure are not enough to stop the spread of noxious plants.

The county has issued numerous letters since 2006 to inform Eccelsia that Azure’s lands are full of Rush Skeleton Weed, Canada Thistle, Morning Glory and White Top that are spreading onto neighboring properties.

Oregon law requires farms to control noxious weeds, but Sherman County officials contend that Eccelsia and Azure have failed to comply with demands by the county over the years, and it is time for enforcement action.

Acceptable measures laid out by Asher include: Tillage that rips up and brings the weed root to the surface where it will dry out every 10-14 days throughout the growing season; covering weeds with plastic or rubber to block out sunlight; treatment with organic herbicides; treatment with traditional herbicides; intense burning or any other method that will destroy the entire plant and root.

Stelzer said when the situation with county officials reached an impasse, he began rallying people to support his refusal to use herbicides to control Azure’s weeds. He posted the message “Organic farm under threat” on the company’s website and Facebook page, and it has been seen by people around the world.

A petition to defend Azure’s practices of treating weeds biologically is circulating online and has been signed by thousands.

Lauren Hernandez, administrative assistant for the Sherman County Court, said there have been hundreds of phone calls and more than 1,500 emails to the office, including one from Hong Kong.

“I tried to talk to several members of the county and no one was approachable,” said Stelzer of the situation. “So, I went ahead and took it to social media and it definitely struck a deep chord in the consumer mindset. Now that it’s been shown there is interest beyond, I’m hopeful that an equitable solution can be arrived at.”

OPPOSING SIDES

Today, May 17, the county court will take public testimony on the issue at 4 p.m. in the Sherman County School gym in Moro. Officials are considering whether to ask the state to enact a quarantine on production at Eccelsia’s property until the noxious weeds have been eradicated.

They also say the county might do the spraying itself, and could put a lien on the farm, forcing Eccelsia to pay for the labor and chemicals used to eradicated the weeds.

Stelzer said he plans to be present and testify. He said that Azure is not opposed to working with the county and universities to find biological ways to eradicate weeds.

“We will do whatever we can,” he said.

The primary method of weed control on Azure’s farmland, said Stelzer, is to mow or use deep tillage right before the plants go to seed.

The company piles citrus pulp on top of patches of Morning Glory, which Stelzer said will work after several years. Other biological methods of eliminating weeds also take time, he said. These include applying acetic acid (found in vinegar) and sea salt to problematic areas.

“It’s not a perfect system, there’s always a few that survive,” said Stelzer. “But we definitely have eliminated a few patches and decreased the volume.”

Azure’s choice to deal with its weeds by tilling up huge swathes of ground has also drawn criticism from local farmers who use no-till practices to stabilize the soil and stop erosion. No-till means the soil is not turned over and seeds for a new crop are inserted into the ground through the stubble of the prior year’s planting.

Area farmers point to erosion around a ditch on Azure’s farm as an example of the damage caused by loosening the soil. In addition, they contend that Stelzer and his workers are simply cutting up the roots on perennials so even more new plants are created. The problem has grown too big, they say, for Stelzer to rid the property of weeds by the methods he is using.

“We have had our new populations of weeds dramatically increase on our land to the point where we have to walk every acre every year to try and stay ahead of the problem. Even with these efforts we are losing the battle as it is impossible to find every new weed every year,” wrote Christopher Moore, who farms downwind of Azure, in a letter to the county court.

There are two differing methods of farming at play in Sherman County, insists Stelzer, and he is determined to have Azure remain chemical-free.

FARMERS SPEAK

Sherman County officials, area farmers and property owners near Azure’s holdings believe that people from outside the area are leaping to the defense of the company without fully understanding the scope of the problem.

Brian Cranston, who grows wheat seed for Mid-Columbia Producers in fields that must be kept pristine to qualify for export markets, said being next to Azure’s operations has become a nightmare. He is spending more money on herbicides than ever before to control weed seeds that drift over the fence and take root, which he feels is ironic given that Azure promotes less use of chemicals.

Cranston became angry enough about Stelzer airing “misleading” statements about the situation to gain public support that he decided to speak out about years of problems.

“No one here is opposed to organic farming —­ this is about Azure being a good neighbor,” he said.

Stelzer said he has to maintain a buffer along his property line that cannot be used for production to ensure that chemicals from the surrounding conventional farms don’t drift on his crops. He said neighboring farmers deal with some of his weeds that cross the fence, so everyone is making some type of a sacrifice.

Ryan Thompson is president of the Sherman County Wheat League. He said allowing Azure not to have to comply with the law would set a bad precedent that could harm the agriculture industry.

“You get into lawlessness when people can pick and choose what laws they will follow,” he said.

Jeff Judah has owned land near Azure for 17 years and said the land farmed by the company was relatively free of weeds when Stelzer took control.

“I have two acres that border their weed farm — it’s prolific,” he said. “I grow a cover crop now so I don’t grow all the weeds that blow over the fence. I honestly don’t know what to do.”

He said Tarweed, also a problem on Azure lands, not only produces an oily substance that cause burrs to cling to clothing, the seed pod lasts for years, so every good rain produces more new weeds.

“They have the greatest variety of weeds we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Farmers throughout Sherman County and beyond are weighing in on the issue out of the belief that airborne seeds from Azure aren’t just sticking around town.

“Those seeds can spread for hundreds of miles,” said Thompson.

“The bottom line here is that they haven’t been good stewards,” said Darren Padget, who farms about 12 miles east of Moro and chairs the Oregon Wheat Commission.

AG ECONOMICS

Thompson and Padget agree that it is vital for weed laws to be enforced because agriculture plays too large an economic role — not only in the county but the state — to threaten conventional farming practices.

“I think the county’s been very lenient, but it’s time to do something about this,” said Thompson.

Wheat covers about 979,000 acres in Oregon and farmers produce about 29.9 million bushels of the grain each year, for an annual dollar value of $320.6 million.

Sherman is the only county in Oregon without forestation and covers about 831 square miles. It is the third largest wheat producing county in the state, despite being 29th out of 36 counites in size, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service.

Alan von Borstel, a Grass Valley farmer and active member of the local and state wheat advocacy groups, said the grain is grown on more land in the world than any other commercial food. He said global trade of wheat is greater than all other crops combined, due in large part to the fact that wheat is the leading source of vegetal protein in the human diet.

“We are growing food for the world here, this is serious business,” he said.

“The ground that Azure is farming is capable of producing 80 bushels in a harvest, but they produce much less and use the same amount of water —the waste of resources is astounding,” said Padget.

Stelzer said Azure makes three times the profit off a bushel of organic wheat than conventional farmers so the company stands to lose a huge profit if production is shut down. He said organic wheat is growing in popularity because consumers increasingly want food that is not tainted with chemicals that increase gluten intolerance, causing celiac disease and other illnesses.

“People don’t want crap in their food,” he said. “People would much rather have a weed seed now and then than pesticides and herbicides that throw the nutrient content of their food out of balance.”

He said Azure employs 150 people in Wasco and Sherman counties and feeds a $6 million payroll back into area communities. He began farming organically in 1973 and established Azure in 1989, before the trend toward organic had really begun.

BACKGROUND

The company expanded enough to begin farming in Moro in 1999 and built the warehouse used for distribution in 2006.

The Moro acreage is used for cattle, wheat, field peas and some ancient grains that are becoming popular in organic markets, said Stelzer.

Cranston said the reason that traditional farmers use sprays is because they work and Stelzer’s methods have failed.

“We all have families and we would never do anything that harmed them,” he said of herbicide application methods.

Von Borstel said reports by environmental groups that farmers “drench” their fields with Monsanto’s Roundup that is absorbed by the wheat are false. That would neither be necessary nor economically feasible, he said.

Herbicides are typically applied before, or shortly after, planting, about eight to nine months prior to harvest, said von Borstel.

He said 24 ounces of Roundup covers an acre and the chemical does not saturate the soil. Glyphosate (Roundup) is readily degraded by soil microbes, according to von Borstel.

He said Roundup is applied to prevent drift with a special nozzle that makes drops too large to blow in the wind. Mixing agents are added to encapsulate the chemical so drops land where intended.

Stelzer said he is prepared to fight any move by Sherman County to force herbicide use on the Moro farm.

“I don’t want to fight with the county, I don’t want to fight with the neighbors, I’d like to work out a resolution,” he said.

Cranston said when Azure starts being a good steward and actively eradicates its weeds, the problem for other farmers will be resolved.

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