The North Santiam River has carved a steep embankment into the land at the back of Christina Eastman’s family farm east of Salem. She keeps a grill on a grassy patch high above the water’s edge for summer cookouts and get-togethers.
“Nice place to hang, huh?” Eastman said.
Her family has lived and farmed here for decades. It’s where she grew up, helping grow grass seed and a variety of produce. But Eastman is worried the tranquil life she’s come to know and love on the family farm will soon be lost.
Right next door, plans are moving forward to build a dozen large barns that will grow millions of broiler chickens annually for Foster Farms, one of the largest poultry producers on the West Coast.
It’s one of three such facilities planned in the area that altogether would grow about 13 million birds per year — all within a 15-mile radius of Scio.
Eastman leads a coalition called Farmers Against Foster Farms, which has been fighting the three planned facilities. They say the farms will fundamentally change daily life in this part of the state — bringing foul odor and toxic emissions, threatening water quality, and forcing small farms out of business.
“This means everything to me,” Eastman said. “It’s not just for me or my family. It’s for the land. It’s for the river. It’s for my community, my people. … I’m gonna fight this every step of the way.”
The industry next door
The Oregon Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Quality have conditionally approved a permit for the facility next door to Eastman, called J-S Ranch. Pending a court challenge, construction will begin in 2023.
The ranch will feature 12 barns growing six flocks of 580,000 broiler chickens annually. It’s expected to produce 4,500 tons of manure each year, which will be sold to other farmers as fertilizer.
J-S Ranch owner and operator Eric Simon said his farm and others planned for the area are necessary to meet food needs in the Northwest. Americans ate about 98 pounds of chicken per capita in 2021, according to the National Chicken Council.
While Oregon is a tiny player in the national chicken market, it plays a bigger role regionally. The Capital Press newspaper reported this summer that the Northwest chicken industry has been shrinking, measured by one of its key metrics: square footage of barn space devoted to raising poultry. That figure is down by 500,000 square feet over the past five years. The industry could lose another 1.2 million square feet over the next five.
“Most of our farmers are older and aging out of this,” Simon said. “And so if we don’t replace the square footage that we have, then we’re going to go out of business, basically.”
Simon applied to Oregon’s confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO, program in 2020 and had originally hoped to begin construction this summer. But he said the approval process has been painstakingly slow.
Simon said he thinks the state needs to streamline its process for approving CAFOs like his.
“You can’t go out and purchase a million dollars of property and then millions of dollars of equipment and just let it sit there for three years,” he said. “Things need to change in our government and our procedures of how we get these farms going.”
Two similar chicken facilities are in the works nearby.
Jason Peters is applying to build Evergreen Ranch about a dozen miles east of J-S Ranch. Evergreen would grow about 4.5 million chickens per year. As of December, its CAFO application was incomplete, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Randy Hiday has purchased a property in Aumsville where he plans to build 16 barns 60 feet wide and 600 feet long, similar to Evergreen Ranch. The farm is on one of the original homesteads of a family that settled the Stayton-Aumsville area.
Go big or go home?
Opponents of the planned chicken facilities say they represent a trend in Oregon agriculture in which only the largest farms can survive.
“They’re using us, saying Oregonians would rather buy their chicken [from] right here in Oregon,” Eastman said. “Not if we have to live next to this. Of course not.”
Eastman said building the three proposed chicken facilities in Scio and Aumsville would only invite more.
Oregon currently has 26 poultry CAFOs that range from flocks of 960 birds to 1 million birds, according to the Department of Agriculture. It pales in comparison to big poultry states like Georgia, which has thousands of CAFOs. But James Hermes, extension poultry specialist emeritus at Oregon State University, said the state doesn’t need a lot of farms to grow a lot of chickens.
Hermes said it’s unlikely that the proposed chicken operations east of Salem would drive out smaller farmers because they’re not competing in the same markets.
“To say that Foster Farms is pushing out other smaller growers that could take the niche that Foster Farms fills, that’s simply not the case,” Hermes said.
Foster Farms makes chicken products that line shelves in groceries like Safeway or Fred Meyer, whereas small growers often sell direct to consumers on-farm, at farmer’s markets or in niche retailers.
Free-range and pasture-raised products typically fetch higher prices because they cost more to produce. The same is true for other agricultural commodities, Hermes said.
Land this bird
The planned chicken facilities are smack in the middle of the Willamette Valley, which boasts some of the best farmland in the state — and high-value farmland with water rights is hard to come by.
Sarah Ballini-Ross runs Rossallini Farm with her husband in Scio, where they specialize in pasture-raised chicken, goat, lamb and beef as well as hazelnut-finished pork. It took the couple more than two years to find and purchase their farm.
“I was very intentional of looking at what was in my surrounding communities, having a background in public health, and very familiar of the risks associated with factory farms,” Ballini-Ross said. “And I didn’t want to be near them.”
Large poultry farms have long been associated with harsh odors, flies, water pollution, harmful emissions, disease, and cruelty toward the animals it raises.
Environmental regulations are in place to provide some protection from industrial chicken farms. They’re required to manage manure in accordance with state-issued CAFO permits to protect ground and surface water.
But there are fewer or no restrictions to deal with air quality issues, smells or pests associated with industrial poultry.
The industry says new technology and on-farm practices help to reduce or eliminate the farms’ most harmful effects on the environment, public health and animals. But opponents of the planned chicken facilities east of Salem aren’t convinced.
Ballini-Ross’s farm would be downstream from Evergreen Ranch on Thomas Creek if the project is approved.
Raising animals on pasture requires not just caring for the animals, but also the vegetation that they feed on. It’s a gargantuan task that requires ample water, even for a smaller operation like Rossallini.
She said any water pollution or overuse from the poultry ranch upstream will affect her life and livelihood.
“I bought this farm with the intention of never leaving this piece of property,” Ballini-Ross said. “It may not be my forever if we can’t irrigate our water, if I can’t walk out of my front door and take a deep breath of air and love the air that I’m breathing.”
The long haul
Eric Simon of J-S Ranch said he carefully chose the location for his chicken operation. It’s relatively isolated from neighbors compared to other properties and has access to water, power and natural gas.
Scio is also only about 20 driving miles from Salem and Interstate 5, making it easier to transport chickens and farm supplies up and down the West Coast.
Simon said the avian flu outbreak that’s killed millions of U.S. chickens this year (though not broilers) and recent supply chain disruptions underscore the need for locally produced chicken.
“I feel proud that we grow food that is sold here in the Northwest,” he said. “Our local grocery stores, I can go there, and I can see my product.”
Simon added that he intends to be a good neighbor and that J-S Ranch will generate business for local builders, lumber mills, electricians and hardware stores.
But it’s hard to miss the white signs blaring “NO INDUSTRIAL CHICKEN FACTORIES” on front lawns, farm fields and mailbox posts around Scio and Stayton. Christina Eastman said she’s personally hung hundreds at the request of fellow residents.
Eastman doesn’t plan to leave or let up her resistance even after the first barns go up.
“We’ll never stop because it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “We’ve got to protect our community.”