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By Jess Macinko
News Editor 

Weed trouble in Moro, Oregon

 

Jess Macinko

ON THE RECORD: Azure Standard CEO David Stelzer addresses a crowd of some 300 people at a meeting of the Sherman County Court, Wednesday, May 17. A debate over Azure Farms' noxious-weed control has gone viral on social media, drawing international attention.

"Noxious weeds spread the same way as something that's viral on Facebook." With those words, Sherman County wheat farmer Bryan Cranston linked the twin threads of a homegrown controversy that's garnered international attention.

Cranston was one of several concerned citizens who spoke at a special meeting of the Sherman County Court last Wednesday. The subject was Azure Farms Inc., an organic farm that's come under scrutiny for an allegedly negligent weed-control, and, according to critics, an equally irresponsible social media campaign.

Almost two thousand acres of Moro-area properties, leased by Azure Farms Inc., have been the subject of noxious weed ordinance violations since 2006. The strains involved are Rush Skeleton, Canada Thistle, Morning Glory, and White Top.

Neighboring farmers say the problem has grown "exponentially worse" over the years, and worry spreading weeds could mean loss of certification for their fields and potentially tarnish the entire county's reputation as a grain exporter. They claim increased spraying to control the threat has added to their own operating expenses. Unkempt weeds growing in right-of-ways have also become a traffic safety issue, according to Moro Public Works Director John English.

On March 2, 2017, the Sherman County Weed District sent an ordinance violation to Ecclesia of Sinai at Dufur, a church that owns the land leased to Azure Farms. The letter requested Ecclesia submit a weed management plan within 30 days, or else be subject to fines and Weed District efforts to locate and destroy the noxious weeds. Those efforts would include the use of synthetic herbicides, which would nullify the farm's organic certification for at least three years.

In a response dated March 27, church head Alfred Stelzer stated Ecclesia was not subject to the Weed District's direction, and would not "be forced to disobey Yahweh by killing our fellow man by corrupt and debased governments." The response didn't include a weed management plan.

A second letter from the Weed District called Ecclesia's response "unacceptable" and threatened to request a state quarantine of the land if the farm didn't implement effective control measures. The letter included a list of acceptable non-toxic methods, such as organic herbicides, deep tillage, and coverings to block the sun.

Following that letter, Weed District Supervisor Rod Asher met with Azure Farms managers Nathan and Nathaniel Stelzer. At Wednesday's meeting, Asher said he felt the conversation was productive, and looked forward to working with Azure Farms in the future. Those hopes were dashed, Asher said, when he saw the group's social media response.

Viral campaign

A May 11 Facebook post from Azure Standard, an organic products distributor and affiliate of Azure Farms, informed readers "the county is considering imposing draconian, highly toxic weed management laws." In a linked video titled "An Organic Farm Under Threat," Azure Director of Marketing David Cross claimed the county had peremptorily changed its weed ordinance and intended to force Azure Farms to spray the entire Moro properties with toxic herbicides. Both the post and video called for supporters to express their concern.

That call didn't go unanswered. At Wednesday's meeting, County Commissioners reported having received over 57,000 emails, some from as far away as New Zealand.

Speakers at the meeting criticized the campaign for misrepresenting the issue and inciting aggressive responses. Some complained of having been personally threatened.

For Andrea Henricksen, the issue hit close to home.

"I've been working at Azure Standard for over nine years," Henricksen said. "I loved my job. I don't feel that way anymore. I'm ashamed to say I work for Azure Standard. It's not OK for people to threaten other people's lives."

Azure Standard CEO David Stelzer apologized Wednesday for authorizing the campaign. "I don't have Facebook. I didn't understand the implications," Stelzer said. "I didn't intend to vilify the county in any way."

In an interview posted to Azure's website following the meeting, Stelzer responded to concerns that one supporter had offered to send militia to defend Azure Farms from the county's "overreaching socialist government."

"I'd prefer that we can all work together in a peaceful way," Stelzer said in the interview. "I certainly have not called in any militia and certainly won't in any way."

Resolution

At Wednesday's meeting, David and Nathaniel Stelzer said they were unaware neighboring farmers were so concerned. "We've tried hard to comply," Nathaniel said. "We didn't realize it was an issue."

Several audience members spoke in support of Azure and organic farming in general. Supporters also gave personal testimony on alleged carcinogenic effects of synthetic herbicides.

David Stelzer emphasized the difficulty of controlling weeds with non-toxic methods. Azure's organic agriculture consultant, David Knaus, concurred, saying weeds are the number one difficulty for organic farms.

Other speakers suggested the problem lay not with organic farming, but Azure's practices in particular.

"This is not the only organic operation in the county," said Grass Valley resident Jean Luxford Hulbert. "There are others that don't have these problems. They've worked very hard to eradicate them."

Ultimately, the county court decided to give Azure another chance. Subsequent meetings will discuss the implementation of a new weed management plan, which Azure submitted at the May 17 meeting. The plan's methods include non-toxic herbicides, black fabric to block the sun, and deep cultivation to rip up and bring roots to the surface, as previously suggested by the Weed District.

Knaus said those methods will work if their application is consistent. For some, that condition aroused skepticism.

"We wouldn't be having this meeting if, in 2006, you'd taken care of your planning practices," Hulbert said. "You need to not put a Band-Aid on this. You need to fix this problem."

 

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