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Azure weed plan takes root

David Stelzer, president of Azure Farms, Inc., above center, apologizes to a crowd of about 300 Wednesday for his social media campaign that shut down phone lines at the county courthouse and brought in 57,000 emails, as well as harassment and death threats. Seated to his left is brother Nathan, farm manager, and to Stelzer’s right is Rod Asher, supervisor of Sherman County’s weed district.

David Stelzer, president of Azure Farms, Inc., above center, apologizes to a crowd of about 300 Wednesday for his social media campaign that shut down phone lines at the county courthouse and brought in 57,000 emails, as well as harassment and death threats. Seated to his left is brother Nathan, farm manager, and to Stelzer’s right is Rod Asher, supervisor of Sherman County’s weed district. Jeremy Lanthorn photo

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Brian Cranston, center, grows wheat seed on land next to Azure in Moro and expressed frustration with the proliferation of noxious weeds from the organic farm.

Sherman County residents expressed anger Wednesday not only about Azure Farms, Inc., violating local and state weed control laws, but urging a social media uprising against enforcement action.

“We should have met over the tailgate, not through a social media campaign,” said Brian Cranston, a neighboring wheat farmer to David Stelzer, president of Azure.

Will Carey, county counsel, informed the crowd of about 300 people, most of them farmers, gathered in the high school gymnasium at Moro that 57,000 emails had flooded the administrative office. He said messages had come from around the world, some from as far away as New Zealand.

He said the county court office had been inundated with so many phone calls that lines eventually had to be shut down so work could be done.

“I am so disappointed with the way this thing went through the media, there was no call for that,” said Andrea Henricksen, who identified herself as an employee of Azure.

“I’m ashamed to say I work for Azure Standard, people have had their lives threatened.”

Henricksen was referencing death threats made against Lauren Hernandez, administrative assistant to County Judge Gary Thompson and Commissioners Tom McCoy and Joe Dabulskis.

Thompson later revealed that a Florida caller had threatened to bring a “truckload of Roundup” to his house and dump it on the lawn.

“I said I’d rather have it in 5-1/2 gallon jugs,” he said of the conversation.

GROWING ISSUE

The May 17 meeting had been planned to gather public comment about the proliferation of noxious weeds covering 2,000 acres of farmland managed by Azure. Since 2006, the county has sent the company eight violation letters demanding remedial action, a problem that finally grew large enough for neighbors to demand action.

The most problematic weeds on the property are Canada Thistle, Rush Skeleton Weed and White Top, all of which have airborne seeds that can spread for hundreds of miles.

Cranston told the Stelzer family Wednesday that, in their effort to protect organic certification by not using herbicides to control weeds, they were endangering his certification to grow clean wheat seed.

“The difference is that I’m not affecting you, you are affecting me,” he said.

Farmers that grow seeds for Mid-Columbia Producers earn an extra 50 cents per bushel for their labor.

They are not only required to keep weeds and other varieties of wheat out of those fields, but subject to multiple inspections each season by MCP and Oregon State University officials.

“I play by the rules, whether or not I like them, and you should too,” said Cranston.

OWNER APOLOGY

After hearing other comments similar to those expressed by Cranston, David Stelzer told the audience that he had authorized the social media campaign. He said, because he does not have a Facebook page, he did not understand the ramifications of his postings.

“I am sorry,” he said. “I do apologize for unleashing social media on this county, I didn’t want to vilify the county in any way.”

The Stelzer family, including David’s brother Nathan, farm manager, expressed surprise that so many people were upset about their production practices.

Nathan said two big projects in Dufur, where Azure is headquartered, had kept the company too busy to be diligent about stewardship of the land in Moro, where there is a large distribution center for organic products.

He told the audience that his son, Nathaniel, was newly married and he and his wife, Sarah, would be living on the Moro property to concentrate on weed control. He said Azure had also hired a consultant to work on a biological program to address the problem.

“We have every intention of living peaceably with our neighbors and do not want to do them any harm,” said Nathan.

His son also spoke to the crowd.

“Thank you for coming and voicing your opinions. We didn’t realize it was an issue because we knew you sprayed. It wasn’t until this all came out that we realized we’d hurt you and we’re sorry,” said Nathaniel.

The Stelzers agreed to work with Rod Asher, supervisor of the weed district, and other Sherman officials to develop a new weed control plan that would not require chemicals, which they strongly opposed.

“It’s a long-term thing, organic methods are slow,” said David. “Nothing works quickly in nature, it takes time.”

He said the demand for organic foods was growing and Azure did not want to lose the market they had built over the years by spraying weeds.

Azure was established in Dufur in 1989 and expanded its operation to Moro in 1999.

TENTATIVE PLAN

The Stelzers proposed a combination of tillage, mowing and organic products to get rid of weeds.

Asher was equally firm that noxious weeds on the farm be contained as quickly as possible.

“We need to return a level of control and it needs to be constant,” he said.

Area farmers urged the county to stay vigilant about enforcement.

“We are downwind from Azure and our abatement issues have gone from hours to days – and we are losing ground,” said neighbor Chris Moore.

“It’s not organic versus conventional, it’s stewardship,” said Darren Padget, who farms about 12 miles east of Moro and chairs the Oregon Wheat Commission.

Blake Rowe, chief executive officer of the Oregon What Growers League, said Sherman County was one of Oregon’s key wheat producing regions. He said wheat was one of the state’s top export products and the area’s reputation for a high-quality product was at risk.

“Weed in wheat is a quality standard that is measured,” he told the county court.

The majority of speakers at the two-hour meeting wanted enforcement action, but several people expressed support for the Stelzer’s farming practices.

STRAIGHT TALK

Although Carey had warned people against straying away from the subject of weed control to argue the pros and cons of herbicide use, two speakers tearfully shared how family members had gotten chronically ill or died of cancer, and they believed conventional use of chemicals was to blame.

“Our hearts go out to you, but this is about weed control,” said Moro resident Amy Asher, who took the mic after these presentations.

She and many of the other 14 speakers urged county officials to stand strong despite the social media pressure.

“I think what we’re looking at here are bad farming practices that have gone on for a number of years,” said Jean Luxford-Hulbert of Grass Valley to the Stelzers. “This is pure and simple poor management, poor soil control, poor conservation of the fields. You need to fix this problem because it is encroaching on your neighbors and that’s not the way things should be in this community.”

The county warned the Stelzers that, if their new weed control plan doesn’t work, they will ask the Oregon Department of Agriculture to quarantine the property. Asher said the county could also spray herbicide and bill the farm for the work.

David Stelzer told a Chronicle reporter earlier this week that the company would fight to stop chemical applications.

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