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Oregon’s Agriculture Department Reverses ‘Burdensome’ Requirement on Small Dairy Farms

By Alejandro Figueroa

Small dairy farms across Oregon will no longer be subject to a state policy change some farmers say would’ve been too burdensome. The Oregon Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it’s withdrawing its decision to require small dairy operations to apply for a permit usually intended for larger commercial farms.

Last year, the department reinterpreted its definition of a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO, to include small dairy farms. A CAFO permit is an enforceable plan farms must follow to protect surface and groundwaters from pollution, such as manure produced by cows.

The change came after dairy industry lobbyists complained some small dairy farms had an “unfair” competitive advantage over bigger dairy farms that had to follow state regulations and pay annual fees.

In its 2023 decision, the state department of agriculture determined small dairy farms met its definition of a CAFO since farmers usually have to confine or tie up cows while they’re being milked. Even if it was a cow or two, and they were on a pasture for most of the day and only brought indoors to a barn for about 15 minutes, according to Christine Anderson, who milks three cows and owns Cast Iron Farm in Yamhill County.

“Regardless of where else the cows are during the day, if they cross that concrete floor at some point in their day, they’re meeting the definition of confinement,” Anderson said.

The rule would’ve required small dairy farms to install expensive drainage systems, put in wastewater holdings tanks, keep daily records and pay annual fees starting at $125, on top of a $100 application fee — or face fines up to $10,000 if they didn’t comply.

Anderson said it just doesn’t make sense to regulate small dairy farms or homesteaders with a handful of cows, sheep or goats the same way as larger farms.

“We don’t have a lobby, we don’t have an industry group that necessarily supports people that milk a few animals,” Anderson said. “Like it’s already hard enough, most of these people don’t have hired labor and they’re doing all of this on their own.”

Wastewater plans and CAFO regulations are necessary for larger farms that produce tons of manure, but smaller dairy farms don’t impact the environment as bigger farms do, according to Sarah King, who runs Godspeed Hollow Farm in Newberg.

“Small farms are here serving our local communities. We’re serving families that don’t have food access,” King said. “We’re not working for the same goals that large producers — beef, dairy, you name it — have.”

The Oregon Department of Agriculture declined OPB’s request for an interview. In a statement, the agency said it’s withdrawing its decision effective immediately.

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