How a Partisan Fight over Chickens United a Local Oregon Community
How a partisan fight over chickens united a local community
Broiler chickens drink from water nipples in a poultry facility. (Edwin Remsberg/Getty Images)
It took two years in a fight over chickens – yes, chickens! – to show how partisan divides can be overcome in local communities empowered with local control.
Anyone watching the Legislature’s hearings on a bill to place restrictions on industrial-scale livestock operations earlier this year would have seen a stark demonstration of hardline party politics. Republican lawmakers, lined up against the bill, castigating Democrats for over-regulating their constituents and interfering in their communities. Democrats, bolstered by environmental groups, eventually passed the bill without a single Republican vote.
But it didn’t have to be this way – at least not at the local level. In a unanimous vote last week, the county commission in reliably red Linn County took the legislation a step forward and adopted rules that will preempt factory farms in the Scio area, where the fight over chicken factories began in 2021.
“This is how democracy is supposed to work,” Kendra Kimbirauskas, told me. “You can’t have a localized democracy if you’re preempting local control.”
Kimbirauskas, who runs a small farm with her husband near Scio, was one of the lead organizers and strategists in the effort to stop a land and water grab by growers fronting for chicken processing corporations like Foster Farms.
One such grower, near the North Santiam River, had quietly begun to secure county and state approval for a “confined animal feeding operation” or CAFO that would have raised more than 3 million chickens a year in massive, warehouse-sized structures. Another, along Thomas Creek, had begun drilling wells for a similar operation without notice to neighboring farmers and residents, some of whose drinking water soon muddied at their faucets.
When these projects came to light, state law provided few controls on the siting of such operations. CAFOs were considered an agricultural use, unfettered by most water and land use regulations. A century-old “stock watering exemption,” designed for family farms with small herds of livestock, allowed unlimited access to ground water. And our 50-year-old land use system tied the hands of county officials when it came to siting decisions.
So, Kimbirauskas and her neighbors, organized under the banner of Farmers Against Foster Farms, set their sights on this year’s legislative session, intent on updating old laws enacted when farmland wasn’t seen as a ready source of water and real estate for industrial livestock operations.
I joined Kimbirauskas and her group on a tour of the CAFO sites they organized for legislators. Republican lawmakers representing the Scio area never showed up. But a half dozen lawmakers from Portland did. And, as legislation was drafted to address the issues raised by the siting of chicken CAFOs in Linn County and mega dairies in eastern Oregon, the process quickly polarized in Salem. Republicans rallied around protecting the “right to farm,” criticizing urban Democrats for trespassing on farmland issues. State Sen. Fred Girod (R-Stayton) told the Capital Press, “I absolutely resent they’re in my district, raising hell.”
But, Farmers Against Foster Farms spanned the range of red-and-blue political loyalties. I saw their signs in front of farms and homes that sported Trump banners and others that had displayed Biden signs the year before. And the one Republican politician who did show up at the CAFO tour was Roger Nyquist, chair of the Linn County Board of Commissioners. These were not partisans, nor were they outsiders. They were local residents trying to solve local problems.
In the end, after several overflow hearings at the Capitol, lawmakers voted to control access to groundwater and give county governments more control over siting restrictions for large CAFOs. But the party-line votes for and against were a stark illustration of what is increasingly making our politics so contentious at the state and national levels.
Then, last week, the Linn County Commission, chaired by Nyquist and consisting of two other Republicans (one a former legislator), took the advantage of their new authority under the legislation. The commissioners voted unanimously to ban large CAFOs from sites within 1 mile from the property line of any residence, effectively prohibiting them in the Scio area. There was no castigation of Democrats, no sense of being manipulated by Portlanders.
“People care about their community here,” Kimbirauskas observed. She believes allowing more local control over decisions at the city and county level is one way we can narrow the divisions that plague our politics today.
I tend to agree. Local control is not always the cure for what ails us. But preempting local control has been unhealthy for democracy. So, too, is the habit of state lawmakers to retreat to their partisan corners at the bidding of their party leaders and donors.
Not a single voice of opposition was heard at the Linn County meeting last week, when the commission voted to support their local farmers and block the expansion of factory farms in the Scio area. For them, it was a problem-solving vote, when, for their colleagues in the legislature, it had been a call to arms. Happily, for the farmers of Scio, it was also a lesson in the success of local advocacy when their elected officials listen, engage and have the power to respond to their concerns.