Azure Standard Faces Challenges in Oregon to its Organic Farming Practices

Bruce A. Smith
From The Mountain News

Azure Standard, the world’s largest supplier of organic wheat and grains, has been accused of improper management of noxious weeds growing on some of its wheat fields located in Sherman County, Oregon. As a result, it is facing a threat to its organic farming practices and food products. The local county government, based in Moro, Oregon issued a show-order to Azure and its owners, David and Nathan Stelzer, to appear for a public hearing May 17, 2017, and demanded a revised weed-management plan. If found out-of-compliance, Azure’s organic farm fields may be chemically treated by court-order, possibly with potent herbicides like Roundup or Milestone, and then forced to pay for it.

If that happens, Azure would lose its organic certification, and a major source of organic, non-GMO wheat flour would vanish from our grocery stores.

The impacted farmlands are in Moro, the center of dry-land wheat farming in north-central Oregon, about twenty-five miles south of the Columbia River and one-hundred, twenty miles east of Portland. The area has nearly 400,00 acres in conventional, commercial wheat production.

In response, Azure launched a social media blitz that electrified its customer base. Fearing that the Weed Control Board of Sherman County would initiate a toxic chemical campaign to eradicate troublesome weeds, the Azure faithful deluged governmental offices with thousands of emails and phone, paralyzing county functions.

But many residents in Sherman County feel betrayed by Azure for taking the issue beyond the neighborly dimensions it usually employs to settle disputes. As a result, these problems have become a microcosm of the cultural tensions engulfing our nation, particularity the anxieties about veiled corporate control of government.

Although the County alleges that this dispute is long-standing, the specifics are not well-known and details are just now coming into public view.

At the center of the troubles is a 2,000 acre field of “organic soft, white wheat” along the western edge of Moro. Andy Anderson, the mayor of Moro, told the Mountain News that blowing weeds from this property can build drifts of tumbleweeds, Canadian Thistle, and Rush Skeleton weeds as deep as thirty-feet against fences, in some cases even crushing the wooden slats or pushing over the posts. However, Mayor Anderson has been unable to provide photographic evidence of his dramatic claims. Multiple calls by the Mountain News to other Moro residents and farmers for pictures of the weeds have also been unsuccessful.

But, neighboring farmers are fearful that less-dramatic weed infiltration will harm their own wheat crop. Moro wheat farmer Brian Cranston, whose lands border on Azure’s 2,000 acres, says he is directly threatened by what he characterizes as Azure’s inadequate control of noxious weeds. Cranston told the Mountain News that he grows certified wheat to seed and is required by Oregon State Agricultural inspectors to maintain a zero-tolerance for weeds and weed seed in his harvest.

I’ve told Nathaniel (Stelzer, Nathan’s son, Azure’s farm manager in Moro,) that his weeds are drifting onto my crop and it’s messing me up,” said Cranston. “It costs me $12-15 more per acre to chemically treat my affected fields… I’m a good steward of the land, and I’ve worked diligently to protect it. I use just minimal amounts of chemicals to control the weeds, but something needs to be done at Azure. This problem has been building for ten years and it’s getting worse.”

One of the factors contributing to this dispute is an old-fashioned lack of communication. Azure Standard is owned and operated by members of the Stelzer family, with the oldest brother David Stelzer as CEO. Yet, David and his next-in-command, younger brother Nathan, live in Dufur, Oregon, a ninety-minute drive from Moro, and as a result are not involved in Moro affairs, schools or churches. Compounding the situation, the Stelzer family belongs to an eclectic religious group called Ecclesia of Sinai, and seem to live a very quiet, insular lifestyle, which further isolates the Stelzer familyand by extension Azurefrom its neighbors.

I have lived in Sherman County all my life,” organic wheat farmer Austin Justison told the Mountain News, “and I have never met David or Nathan Stelzer.” Justison was at a loss to explain how fellow organic farmers in a rural area, even if a hundred miles apart, would never once interact during the eighteen years that Azure has farmed in Sherman County.

Similarly, Sherman County Commissioner Tom McCoy told the Mountain News that he, too, had never met the Stelzers until they attended the public hearing this week. McCoy also confirmed that the County has been concerned about weed problems on Azure lands for the past ten years and had deemed the Stelzers and Azure as unresponsive.

But David Cross, Azure’s Marketing Director, told the Mountain News that Sherman County had been sending all of its notices and letters of concern to the wrong address. Azure Standard is owned by David and Nathan Stelzer but the lands they farm are owned by the Ecclesia of Sinai, in which Alfred Stelzer, father of David and Nathan, is an executive. Cross said the County notices were sent to the Church’s address and not the Stelzers directly.

But Cross was unable to adequately explain how ten years’ worth of governmental correspondence got lost in a Stelzer family-Church shuffle.

Nevertheless, Commissioner McCoy feels the hearing in Moro was successful.

It was a good meeting,” McCoy said. “I had two goals and both of them were met. First, I wanted to start communications between the County, Azure and the Stelzers, and I think that happened. The second thing is I wanted the Stelzers to hear the extreme concerns of their neighbors. In turn, Azure’s supporters were also heard. So, overall I think it was a good meeting.”

McCoy also said that the Stelzers had submitted a revised weed management plan to Sherman County, as requested. However, McCoy was circumspect. “I’m not sure the new plan is workable…they let the problem go on for ten years, so…”

McCoy said that the County’s primary concern was air-borne seeds from Rush Skeleton Weed and Canadian Thistle plants growing on Azure’s 2,000 acre field in Moro. “They blow onto the neighboring wheat fields and cause problems,” he said.

Cross added that the dramatic pile-up of weeds actually comes from the non-noxious “Jim Hill Mustard Weed,” which forms classic tumbleweeds when it dries at the end of the season and in high winds can create impressive vistas.

But how Azure will control weedsor even determine how much weed infestation needs to be managedis still open to discussion. Cross said that Sherman County weed control board director Rod Asher announced at the public hearing that he is convening a group of experts to advise him on best practices on organic farms. Cross said Asher acknowledged that all of his professional expertise is in the control of weeds on conventional, commercial wheat fields where the application of chemical herbicides is ubiquitous, with the concomitant addition of chemical fertilizers to rejuvenate the soils after the herbicides have decimated its microbial life.

This “One-Two Punch” of chemically-based wheat production is at the heart of the weed issue. David Stelzer has produced a series of informational videos that address these methods. He asks: “What is good farming practice?”

He questions if the traditional notion of stripping fields of all of its weeds is actually good farming, and champions the idea that organic food is much more than growing a food crop without pesticides. Rather, Stelzer feels that the loftiest goal for an organic farmer is to produce food is such a way that it enriches the soil, develops high nutrient values, and counters harmful residues that remain in the ground from past practices.

Cross fully embraces this aesthetic. “The ground waters in Moro have five-times the normal limits of nitrates from all the nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers that have been put into the soils over the past few decades. We’re doing a lot more than just growing good food,” and says that Azure is helping give the residents of Moro healthier drinking water because of its benign approach to weed control.

But exactly how bad is the weed problem? At this date, it is still unclear to many. Cross says that currently Azure uses a standard mix of plowing and the use of cover crops to control its weeds, “but there will always be some weeds in an organic farm field,” he added.

In his videos David Stelzer is quite clear in touting the valuable contributions weeds bring to organic farming. He claims that weeds bring calcium and other minerals to the surface soils so that the wheat can better access these needed nutrients. He also says weeds can stabilize the moisture content in soils, a very important feature in an area that averages fourteen inches of rain per year. Stelzer adds that organic farming methods will increasingly become the norm in American farming because it provides such significant contributions to the farming ecosystem.

Nevertheless, Cross said that he will ask the Stelzers to illuminate the specifics of what they are doing currently to control weeds and assess how successful they have been. These findings will be discussed in future Mountain News articles.

Nevertheless, Cross acknowledged the concerns of his neighbors, particularly Brian Cranston in Moro. “I have never stood in Brian Cranston’s fields so I don’t know how affected his lands are by weeds, but if Brian is concerned that is a valid concern to us. We want to be good neighbors.”

Cross added that he thought the future of weed control in Sherman County may be selective and specialized, such as creating buffer zones.

One possibility may be for Azure to chemically spray thin strips of land along the borders we share with Brian’s fields,” Cross told the Mountain News.

In addition, Cross said that David Stelzer has suggested the use of a vinegar spray to control certain types of weeds.

Other methods have been suggested by other wheat farmers. Austin Justison said that Azure may have to introduce the wide-scale practice of “Summer Fallow,” whereby organic fields are left fallow, or unused, for one season on a rotating basis, and the unplanted soils are tilled repeatedly to kill all of the emerging weeds. Justison also recommended dynamic crop rotation as another method of minimizing weed growth, or even abandoning wheat production for a period of time until the weed problem is resolved. He told the Mountain News that he plants late-season barley rather than wheat because his barley can be planted after the weeds broach the surface of the soilbut before they go to seedso they can be tilled, and thus controlled.

Cross added that the Stelzers are also evaluating a new kind of farm equipment designed for weed control on organic farms, called a “Comb and Cut.” This implement is dragged over the wheat in mid-season when growing stalks are high enough to be “combed over” and bent down below the height of the remaining weeds, which are then “cut” with a sharpened edge blade.

Besides farming techniques and philosophies, there are other dimensions to this dispute.

Organic farming is about a change in consciousness. It’s a shift in consciousness,” said Cross. “What we are doing is effecting how people think. It is changing one’s belief system.”

Cross is very cognizant of the political ramifications of these dynamics and sees them as contributing to the tensions in Sherman County. “In the UK, where I was born, food products have ‘pesticide residues’ posted on their labels. Obviously, that is not done in the United States, but many people want it. It’s like the battle to label food products as non-GMO. It’s a huge issue.”

Along those lines, many residents in Moro suspect that the weed issue may be a “Red Herring,” a false problem designed to blunt the growth of organic farming, or even put Azure out of business. Certainly these fears fueled many of the 57,000 emails and phone calls that Sherman County agencies fielded this week from angry Azure customers.

Mike Rippee, owner of the Tall Winds Motel in Moro, openly wonders if Monsanto is behind the controversy, asking if the giant chemical corporation found disgruntled folks to push Sherman County to confront Azure in a back-handed way to increase chemical sales. “Maybe they just want to sell more Roundup,” he said.

The large wheat farmers in Sherman County are not happy with Azure, too,” Rippee added, musing that some kind of power-play may be afoot, and the goal is to bankrupt Azure. “When it comes to the weed issue nothing reasonable is being said, and there is too little information of substance being released,” said Rippee. “I want to see the facts.”

Similarly, Deborah Rudometkin, the owner of The Craftsman Inn in Moro, speculates if hidden agendas, like developing residential housing on Azure’s lands, may be an underlying reason Sherman County is raising the weed issue.

Those Azure lands are prime properties to develop,” she told the Mountain News. “They’re so close to central Moro, and infrastructure like water and power are also installed nearby. There are plenty of houses already around those Azure fields.”

In addition, she ponders if country officials are bowing to regional pressures to use Azure lands to spread human wastes. “I hear that certain farmers are getting paid to receive the wastes, and when it gets spread over the fields it really stinks.”

At the very least, there are a variety of cultural divides at work in Sherman County.

You have to remember,” said Rudometkin, “the big wheat farmers and their families have been here for over a hundred years. It’s tribal. They like doing things a certain way, and the Azure people are in their way. They’re upsetting the apple cart.”

This article is the first in a series on the on-going developments in Sherman County, and the larger story of how large-scale organic farms can continue to deliver quality foods to our tables.