Oregon county, organic farm at odds over noxious weeds; spraying, quarantine threatened

Stock Photo of wheat. (USDA)

A battle over noxious weeds is raging in a sparsely populated Oregon county, and it has pitted an organic farm against local authorities.

Azure Standard, which raises crops organically, has about 2,000 acres of land in Sherman County, mostly on the west side of the city of Moro, the county seat with a population of 324. The company says it ships its products to 38 states.

But the county has found the farm to be in violation of the county’s weed ordinance. The county and neighboring farmers contend noxious weeds can negatively impact the economy of the area, which is dependent on agriculture. And some farmers have complained that the weeds from Azure are spreading to their farms.

The county has given the farm until May 22 to get rid of the noxious weeds. In written letters to the farm, the county has threatened to kill the weeds using chemical herbicides and/or quarantine the farm.

Azure’s CEO, David Stelzer, said Tuesday in a phone interview that he believes his farm is not in violation of the county’s weed ordinance.

“The weed ordinance is not absolutely specific that we have to use particular types of controls,” he said, adding that Oregon’s preferred method of controlling these “B Listed Weeds” is through biological control.

If the county sprays the chemicals on the farm, Stelzer said it will lose its organic certification that it has had for 18 years. And he said it will take at least four years, but probably longer, for the farm to sell its products again as organic.

Last week Azure Standard sent out a plea for help through a video on its website and Facebook page, urging people to call or email the county court and ask that it not take any action against the farm. The plea for help has gone viral.

The farm operates on land that is owned by Ecclesia of Sinai at Dufur, a church, whose president is Alfred Stelzer, David’s father. Azure leases the land from the church.

On March 2, Sherman County Weed District Supervisor Rod Asher sent a letter to Ecclesia alleging that four noxious weeds – Rush Skeleton, Canada Thistle, Morning Glory and White Top – were “growing rampant and unchecked on your properties in Sherman County.”

Asher cited sections of the county’s weed ordinance and state law that required the owner to kill the weeds. He also asked the property owner to submit a weed management plan within 30 days or face fines or eradication of the weeds with the herbicides Escort and Milestone.

Alfred Stelzer responded on March 27, saying that his properties need not comply with the county’s order. His response was religious in nature.

“God’s Law, the Law of the land, was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai 3,000 years ago. This comes before any judicial legislation or statutory construction,” he wrote to the weed control district in a letter obtained from the county through a public records request.

Asher responded with an April 27 letter, stating the property owner’s response was “found to be unacceptable.”

David Stelzer said the church and the company should be viewed as two separate entities and that his father was responding as the church’s leader, not the corporation’s.

Records obtained through the public records request show that the county has warned the farm at least four times since 2006 about its weed problem.

Stelzer said he has been taking action to try to control the weeds, including mowing, biological controls and deep tillage.

But the county found the farm’s efforts ineffective and suggested measures such as traditional and organic herbicides, covering the weeds, burning or “any other method that can effectively destroy the entire plant and root.”

On May 1, Sherman County Judge Gary Thompson sent the Oregon Department of Agriculture a letter informing the agency about the situation and indicated it may request the farm be quarantined if the farm doesn’t meet the May 22 deadline.

If the county does spray the chemical herbicides on the farm, Stelzer left open the possibility of a lawsuit.

“It’s inevitable that that’s what would end up having to happen,” he said if the farm is sprayed.

The county is hosting a weed ordinance discussion, today, Wednesday, May 17 at 4:30 p.m. It will be held in the Sherman County School gym at 65912 High School Loop in Moro.

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