3 Takeaways from the Azure Farms Weed Debacle

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Trigger warning: Everyone gets sharp stick in the eye.

[ 2900 words – 10-15 minute read ]


If you run in certain circles you are certainly aware of the drama going on right now in Sherman County, Oregon with Azure Farms and their weed woes. If not, here is what’s going on.

 Azure Farms is a 2000 acre farm that produces organic wheat, field peas, barley, Einkorn, and beef. It has been certified organic for 18 years. They were recently given an ultimatum by the county government to eradicate noxious weeds on their property or the county would order those weeds removed by the use of synthetic herbicides and the farm would be sent a bill, possibly via a lien.

Before getting to all the different issues at play here, it’s important to understand what’s at stake before getting too far into the weeds of this one . (like you thought we’d escape that inevitable pun calamity).

Micromanaging weed control on an individual farm isn’t generally something that a local government wants to be involved in, and normal weed control wouldn’t be anyone else’s business outside of the proper use of herbicides according to label use, state and federal laws. But what’s happened in this case is that Azure Farms has let noxious weeds grow out of control on their property. Noxious weeds grow and spread so aggressively that they require special regulation. The issue is not to protect Azure Farms from bad management, but to protect their neighbors, an issue we’ll dig into more as we go.

This prompted Azure Farms to rally their customer base and supporters to their cause to fend off this challenge. Here they relied on two different but related alarms, the first was that use of synthetic herbicides on the farm would mean the loss of organic certification for three years. This is true, they have put themselves in serious economic jeopardy. The second alarm is simple fear mongering to their customers about the bogey man of “noxious, toxic, polluting herbicides”. Here is how they characterize the absolutely routine weed control strategy of applying RoundUp (Glyphosate), an herbicide with the lowest environmental impact which biodegrades fairly quickly:

Sherman County may be issuing a Court Order on May 22, 2017, to quarantine Azure Farms and possibly to spray the whole farm with poisonous herbicides, contaminating them with Milestone, Escort and Roundup herbicides.

This will destroy all the efforts Azure Farms has made for years to produce the very cleanest and healthiest food humanly possible. About 2,000 organic acres would be impacted; that is about 2.8 times the size of the City of London, England, and 1.5 times the size of the city center of Philadelphia that could be sprayed with noxious, toxic, polluting herbicides.

The county would then put a lien on the farm to pay for the expense of the labor and chemicals used.

For starters, The City of London covers about 6,424 acres or over 3Xs the size of the area that would be sprayed if Azure hadn’t gotten it’s weed management plan approved by the county in time. But that’s neither here nor there, it’s just shows the level of rigor and the lack of respect for their readers intelligence. Why they think anyone living outside of Philadelphia has the size of Philadelphia Center City as a point of reference for area is beyond me, but the math works out – it really is 2/3rds the size of Azure Farms. The next time someone asks you how big Philadelphia Center City is, you can tell them – About 2/3rds the size of a medium sized organic farm in eastern Oregon.

But lets put this the context that matters. Glyphosate is applied on over 100 million acres of cropland. 2000 acres is on the small side for a farm growing row crops like wheat and barley and grazing beef. It is taking advantage of your supporters lack of a sense of scale to start comparing the small footprint of your farm and comparing it to things that sound large if you don’t have a decent mental map of where a 2000 acre farm fits into the overall scheme of things.

But the more dishonest aspect is the screeching about the supposed environmental catastrophe of using modern herbicides to control weeds. Glyphosate biodegrades fairly quickly and is among the least impactful pesticides to wild species of insects, mammals, amphibians, etc. It’s beyond the scope of this post to break that down further, but I will point people to the following if they need more evidence on these points:

•  FAFDL RESEARCH WIKI:Glyphosate Literature Reviews
• Is Glyphosate an especially dangerous pesticide?
• Glyphosate and Cancer: What does the data say?
• Glyphosate and Field Ecosystems
• Glyphosate and The Environment
• Glyphosate and Health Effects A-Z

RoundUp is applied at the rate of around 12 ounces of active ingredient per acre. It has an acute toxicity lower than that of caffeine.

But here’s the thing about what Azure Farm’s weed problems mean for herbicide use in Sherman County: Azure Farms is CURRENTLY responsible for lots of RoundUp and herbicide use in Sherman County. They are just exporting it to their neighbors. Rush Skeleton Weed, Canada Thistle, Morning Glory and White Top are the weeds in question. Rush Skeleton Weed and Canada Thistle especially both travel by air similar to dandelion seeds, meaning the can travel long distances to other properties.

For readers who are not farmers or #agnerds, weeds are a huge problem in farming and tolerating weeds isn’t a sustainable alternative to eradicating weeds with herbicides. Weeds compete with crops for resources – for land, for water, for nutrients. So every bit of land used by weeds is land that isn’t used to produce crops, that is land we’ve take out of wilderness and put into cultivation, so it should be farmed efficiently. Every bit of irrigated water that is used by a weed instead of a crop is precious water wasted. Every bit of fertilizer that is eaten up by weeds is energy and nutrients wasted. There is nothing sustainable about pouring scarce energy and resources into growing weeds.

While there are various organic approved pesticides to deal with insects and fungi, etc; there are precious few tools for dealing with weeds other than mechanical means – tilling fields, which is bad for soil structure, erosion, holding moisture. For many, if not most organic farms weed control is a major expense in terms of time and fuel.

A neighbor of Azure Farms provides a contrast in weed management. The field on the left is Azure Farms, on the right is a local conventionally managed farm. Via Facebook

So weed seeds from Azure Farms blows onto neighboring farms, then what happens? Those farms have worse weed problems than they would have if their neighbor was managing their weeds properly. Because those farmers don’t want to waste land, fuel, water, and fertilizer growing weeds, they use herbicides to kill the weeds before the weeds steal those resources. Thus, Azure Farms weed problem leads to greater total herbicide use in Sherman County than if they managed their weeds responsibly.

Canada Thistle stealing precious resources one inch at a time.

There’s an even more direct economic hardship that Azure is passing on to their neighbors than just forcing them to spend more time and money on weed control. Many farmers in Sherman County (and Oregon in general) grow crops for the seed market. This is a market non-farmers don’t give a lot of thought to, but it’s obviously an important segment once you think about it for two seconds. Seeds to grow crops don’t come from factories, they come from fields.

Farmers that grow seed, in the case of Sherman County, let’s say wheat for seed, are paid an extra premium for their crop, because it has to be of exceptional quality and the final product has to be meticulously clean of anything except seeds. One thing that can really ruin the value of a seed crop is the presence of weed seeds mixed in. Think about it. If you are buying seed, the last thing you want mixed in is weed seeds. Imagine buying a bag of grass seed for your lawn that came with dandelion seeds already mixed in. Likewise, if you are a wheat farmer, the last thing you want mixed in when you are seeding your fields is Canada Thistle and Rush Skeleton Weed.

Capitol Press:

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.

I was able to confirm with a farmer in the county who have had dealings with and trust that there are areas where they have acres of noxious weeds across the street from a farm that grows wheat for the seed market.

Other farmers in the county documented the problem with photographs on Facebook. There were good discussions in Food and Farm Discussion Lab and My Job Depends on Ag if you really want to get into the nitty gritty here.

One common theme across the discussion with farmers that I saw was that there are plenty of organic farmers who don’t have these kinds of weed problems. There are even other organic farmers in Sherman County growing wheat without creating weed problems for their neighbors, so there was very little empathy for Azure among their neighboring farmers.

That was compounded by observations of soil erosion issues and even reports of seeing lots of topsoil washed away into local rivers. The farm does not have a good reputation locally for their farming skill. On top of that there were reports that they are behind in paying suppliers, so it could be the case that these are problems typical of a business on the financial ropes, trying to cut corners where ever they can to keep things going until their fortunes improve.

As of this writing, Azure had trimmed their sails in their message to supporters a bit and finally submitted a weed control plan to the county which has been approved by the county.

I don’t want to spend too much time harping on the sins of Azure Farms, who don’t seem to be a representative organic farm – that is, their weed and erosion problems are not necessarily inherent or typical of organic farming. There certainly are plenty of conventional farms with soil erosion issues and less than stellar weed management on conventional farms has resulted in problematic herbicide resistant weeds on tens of millions of acres of crop land.

Now that we’ve taken this debacle as a case study to learn a little bit about farming, let’s look at what it tells us in general about the debates over the politics of farming.

1. What it says about consumers

The organic consumers being rallied to Azure Farms cause were woefully misinformed about the issues at stake and easily manipulated by emotional appeals and playing the victim card.

Because the main dividing line between organic and conventional farming is the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, organic producers and marketers have had an incentive to play up, to the point of wild exaggerations and misinformation, the risks posed by synthetic pesticides while eliding the use of organic and mineral based pesticides in organic farming. This has lead to a customer base wildly misinformed about the environmental and health risks posed by most pesticides and unable to distinguish between a relatively benign herbicide like glyphosate and a relatively dangerous insecticide like chlorpyrifos.

Nor are they have they been equipped to grapple with the concept of trade offs in agriculture or to conceive of a scenario where an organic farm is causing environmental damage instead of limiting it. Instead they have been primed to engage in naive, paranoid “analysis”. I don’t know how many times I saw speculation that this was some plot by Monsanto to sell more RoundUp by forcing a single small organic farm to use the herbicide for a single season. Think about the work it would take to find a farm out of compliance with a county weed statute and then launch the behind the scenes lobbying campaign to orchestrate forcing a single farm to pay for an application of RoundUp on a few hundred acres of cropland – as opposed to putting their resources into marketing to potential repeat customers on larger farms. That’s putting aside that this is actually a PR problem for Monsanto to have people all stirred up about glyphosate and that having Azure exporting weed seeds to their neighbors is actually a better long term strategy for Monsanto in terms of selling RoundUp. If anything Monsanto should have offered to pay Azure’s legal fees in fighting the county on this one.

The idea that controlling weeds by tillage might be more environmentally damaging than the judicious use of herbicides is completely foreign to the consumer supporters of Azure. Nor did it occur to any of them that the weeds on Azure’s property were anyone else’s business – it didn’t occur to them that the county might have a reason for having a weed supervisor and a statute governing noxious weeds. Instead they were immediately howling about how this was outrageous government over-reach, instead of understanding that allowing noxious weeds to proliferate on the property was a form of pollution.

2. What it says about organic farmers

I certainly don’t want to project Azure Farms poor management, poor environmental stewardship, and lack of good neighborliness to other organic farms. Even though I don’t think organic farming is the optimal system of farming for environmental stewardship, I think most organic farmers are making a good faith effort to be good stewards.

No, the thing that was really striking here is the way the typical script has been flipped. Here in Oregon two separate counties tried to ban the cultivation of GMO crops, supported largely by organic farmers who justified the campaign on the grounds that they wanted the county governments to insulate them from the risk of cross-pollination (contamination) from their neighbors biotech crops. Instead of lobbying to get a little more wiggle room in the organic standard for accidental cross pollination – there’s actually plenty of wiggle room, but some shipments do get dinged for the presence of biotech DNA – or lobbying to improve the county’s system of coordinating between neighboring farms (something they already do), instead they tried to use their political clout to leverage the power of the State to dictate how their neighbors farm.

It’s hard not to notice that is exactly what Azure Farms is decrying here. It would seem inconsistent, except that playing the victim is what is consistent for organic farmers between both cases. In the case of cross-pollination from biotech crops, any economic harm is self-imposed by the organic community on themselves. Their crop hasn’t been harmed in any material way, but for political or philosophic reasons they have chosen to define cross-pollination as contamination which lowers the value of their crop by taking it out of the organic standard they have chosen to participate in. Then they want to make that their neighbor’s problem, in the case of Australian organic farmer Steve Marsh by suing his neighbor when some biotech canola sprouted on his farm (but didn’t impact his crop), in the case of Josephine and Jackson counties by making their neighbors farming choices illegal.

Here Azure is doing the opposite – they are imposing costs on their neighbors and when the power of the State is wielded to protect their neighbors from real harms – their fields have more weeds, they have to spend more money on weed control – Azure is supposedly the victim.

It’s not a good look. US ag has a victim complex and it’s manifest threefold in the organic sector. If I had one piece of advice to all my farmers friends – stop playing the victim.

3. What it says about conventional farmers

Lest my conventional farming friends thought they were going to get through this debacle unscathed, sorry. Nope.

It’s hard not to watch farmers RIGHTLY insist that the county should step in and take reasonable steps to stop one farm from externalizing their costs and polluting their neighbor and NOT think of all this in terms of the general allergy to environmental accountability that the ag community has in terms of externalizing their costs to the rest of us.

I’m watching this against the backdrop of:

• Opposition toWOTUS that I find hard to justify.
• The move in the North Carolina state legislature to knee cap citizens ability to hold hog CAFOs accountable for health problems and damage to property values.
• The lobbying that led the Trump administration to over-ride the ban on chloripyrifos, even as 50 farm workers were exposed to chloripyrifos and 12 were poisoned.

Read more:
• On So-Called “Superweeds”
• Organic Farmers Face Their Own Version of Baumol’s Disease
• Focus on Pesticides is a Distraction from Major Eco Impacts

 [Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with an  ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon. All contributors receive a subscription to our email newsletter the FAFDL Dispatch. ]


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