Azure Farms, Inc., and the Sherman County Court appear close to reaching an agreement about how to keep noxious weed seeds from spreading to neighboring properties and beyond.
Last minute changes from both sides that hadn’t been fully reviewed led Judge Gary Thompson and commissioners to delay further action on the enforcement plan until the next meeting of the court at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, June 21.
The sticking point in getting the plan adopted is a property rights issue, said Nathan Stelzer, Azure farm manager, at Wednesday’s meeting.
Sherman County wants to invoke its statutory right to inspect fields, pastures and range ground to determine if Azure’s organic weed control measures are working. Both the county and state versions of weed laws allow officials limited access to private lands to monitor weed growth.
“You don’t need to expect you’re going to look out your kitchen window and see me walking by every morning because that’s not going to happen,” said Rod Asher, the county’s weed supervisor, to the Stelzer family.
Stelzer said the company would be more comfortable if Azure representatives accompanied officials, and that they needed to call ahead to make an appointment for the visit.
He said those terms would also make Ecclesia of Sinai, the church run by relatives that owns the 2,000 acre property in Moro, feel more comfortable.
“I feel that out of respect for Ecclesia, I couldn’t sign an agreement that didn’t respect private property,” said Stelzer.
Thompson said it was worth taking time to craft an agreement that was workable for both parties because other states were interested in seeing how Sherman County handled the dispute between conventional farmers and an organic operation.
Neighbors of Azure contend their frustration has nothing to do with having an organic farm in their midst — there are a couple others in Sherman County that do not have weed problems — it’s a matter of stewardship.
“We’ve got to get this right because we’re being watched pretty closely by the whole nation,” said Thompson. He was referencing the worldwide response to the “Organic farm under threat” social media postings authorized by David Stelzer, president and chief executive officer of Azure.
The county received tens of thousands of mostly angry emails, as well as thousands of phone calls, some of which were to deliver threatening messages. A petition to defend Azure’s practices of treating weeds biologically circulated online and was signed by thousands.
Nathan said the situation was also being watched closely by Azure’s customers so he agreed that the plan needed to be the right one. The farm loses its organic certification if it applies chemicals used on most of the surrounding commercial wheat farms.
At issue in the rural area that relies on wheat production for an economic base is the spread of several noxious weeds — Canadian Thistle, Rush Skeleton Weed, Morning Glory and White Top — that are prolific on Azure’s holdings.
The company grows wheat and other produce and provides range land for cattle on the property that also houses a distribution center. Neighboring farmers began demanding that the county take action after airborne weed seeds from Azure began infiltrating their properties. Some of these operations grew seeds, which required pristine conditions to meet market requirements.
Asher said the county is not focused on how Azure controls the spread of weeds, just that it does.
Azure has been using deep tilling prior to weeds going to seed as a control measure, along with mowing and application of black land fabric, citrus pulp and salt. The company has also expressed willingness to experiment with Homeopathic Silicea, a mineral solution, to spray weeds.
Asher told the county board Wednesday that he felt, at some point, Oregon State University Extension specialists and other agricultural experts might need to get involved on a regular basis in Azure’s weed control program.
Prior to the start of the June 7 discussion, Commissioner Tom McCoy read a blistering letter about the “social media attack” that Azure launched on May 11.
“First, you need to know that neither the over 59,000 emails nor the thousands of phone calls the court received has done anything but strengthen our resolve to uphold our weed ordinance,” read McCoy.
“None of the emails or calls that supported Azure Standard (marketing arm of company) came from our constituents. I care about Sherman County residents, not residents of Virginia or California who showed in their emails and calls that they were badly misinformed about the situation. The only thing your attack accomplished was to annoy us and make communication more difficult.” McCoy claimed the media campaign was a ploy to increase Azure’s sales by marketing the company as a victim. He said the campaign to rally support was fueled by a lot of misinformation.
“We never threatened to spray your ‘whole farm,” he said. “We never mentioned glyphosate or Roundup. Our ordinance allows our weed supervisor to spray areas of your fields that are infested with noxious weeds only if you fail to act.”
The county has issued numerous letters since 2006 to inform Eccelsia that weeds from Azure’s lands were spreading. Officials contend that Azure failed to comply with demands that weeds be contained.
David Stelzer arrived at the meeting late and was not present to hear McCoy read the letter. Following the meeting, he reviewed what it said and provided comments to a reporter.
“I guess everyone sees things from their own perspective,” he said. “I definitely saw their perspective and what he’s trying to explain.”
He also took issue with several points.
“As I told them (county officials) before, I did not know how far this was going to go,” he said of the social media posting.
Stelzer said he decided to rally supporters after he was unable to set up a meeting with county officials once enforcement actions began, which he felt was a concerted effort to stonewall further discussion. “I do not feel like I did that (media campaign) completely unprovoked,” he said.
The situation became more problematic, he said, when the county sent a May 1 notification to the Oregon Department of Agriculture that it could be requesting a quarantine of the Moro holdings due to uncorrected weed ordinance violations.
“The letter said the county required us to destroy the weeds and not control them,” said Stelzer, who believes all plants add to the biodiversity of a landscape.
He said it is possible that the media postings helped bring all parties to the table for negotiations.
“I don’t guess anyone will ever know whether it had any bearing on the outcome,” he said.
Stelzer said the path the county and Azure are now on is going in a proactive direction and he plans to keep customers informed about what is happening because they will expect regular updates.
“We don’t want weed seeds spreading to the neighbors and that’s all they are asking now, and we are perfectly fine with that,” he said.