IJ Calls BS Over Small Dairy Waste Rules

Bobbi Taylor
Bobbi Taylor  ·  April 1, 2024

Every morning, Sarah King wakes before sunrise to milk her cows, affectionately named after Disney princesses. Sarah sells sustainably sourced fresh milk through her farm, Godspeed Hollow. Her operation is small but thriving. And judging by the waiting list, her product is in high demand. But the Oregon Department of Agriculture now wants to regulate Sarah’s small backyard farm as if it has 3,000 cows, not three. So Sarah and several other small-scale farmers are fighting back to protect their businesses.

Like many states, Oregon regulates “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). These are typically commercial farms that house hundreds or thousands of animals indoors for long periods and produce tons of animal waste, causing problems for the environment if not handled properly. So state law requires CAFOs to be permitted and outfitted with elaborate drainage and holding tanks to manage the large amounts of waste produced. 

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While this might make sense for larger dairies, small farms like Sarah’s manage waste through a regenerative farming process that helps—rather than pollutes—the environment. Her cows spend most of their time at pasture getting nourishment from the grass. Their waste, in turn, nourishes the soil and helps the grass grow. The cycle repeats as these cows rotate around the farm. Sarah’s cows spend only a short time each day indoors for milking; waste generated in the barn is composted and used for the farm’s vegetable garden.

Oregon previously allowed smaller dairies, including Sarah’s, to operate without the expensive waste management infrastructure required of large CAFOs. But last year, the department announced it had received “concerns” from large dairies that small dairies were enjoying a “competitive advantage” by escaping the CAFO permit requirement. Suddenly, it announced that any dairy farmer who brings animals inside for milking, however briefly, is now subject to the regulation. While the department claims environmental concerns were behind this change, it is not applying the regulation to non-dairy farms. Yet these farms often produce just as much, if not more, waste. This underscores the department’s true motive: to protect big dairies at the expense of small ones.

This is devastating for small farmers like Sarah. The state-mandated infrastructure will cost tens of thousands of dollars to install. Maintaining a CAFO permit will require annual fees, periodic inspections, daily reporting, and hours of extra work—all to dispose of a small amount of animal waste that small farmers already manage safely. And ultimately, Sarah sees this change as an affront to her business. She doesn’t want to be a large commercial dairy; her hands-on and sustainable approach is what makes her farm special.

The state cannot saddle small dairies with needless regulation simply to please big dairies. So IJ helped Sarah—together with fellow dairy farmer Christine Anderson and two small goat’s milk producers—to bring a constitutional challenge to Oregon’s CAFO regulations. And shortly after we filed suit, the department agreed not to enforce against our clients or other small farmers while litigation continues. We’ll continue the fight until we secure lasting relief that makes Oregon’s non-enforcement permanent—and defend a rural tradition that has been part of this country since the Founding.

Bobbi Taylor is an IJ attorney.

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