Azure Organic Farm, Oregon
Frequently Asked Questions
The FAQs below come from transcripts of discussions directly with David Stelzer, CEO of Azure.
For media inquiries please contact David Cross, Director of Marketing at Azure indicating which publication you represent and with your questions or specific area of interest.
What is the relationship between Azure Farm and the church (Ecclesia of Sinai)?
The Ecclesia of Sinai is a church. The church actually owns the land. Azure Farms Inc. leases the land from the church. It’s really that simple. Now, Alfred Stelzer is one of the heads of the church, and he is David Stelzer’s father. But Alfred Stelzer does not work in the business and has not for many years. He only works in the church.
What is the difference between a C corporation and a non-profit organization (such as a church)?
A C corporation is a corporation for profit, and a nonprofit organization is one that’s for a charity. So the land is owned by a nonprofit organization (the church), but all of the business is conducted by Azure Farms, a for-profit corporation. There’s only a lease payment that goes through the church. And by the way, that does not exempt any of the land from property taxes.
How long has Azure Farm been organic?
The land in Moro has been organic for 18 years since 1999. However, Azure Farms in Dufur has been organic since 1973 and has been successfully raising wheat without letting noxious weeds get completely out of control for 44 years.
How long has Azure Standard been an organic food distribution company?
1987 is when we actually coined the name Azure Standard, so it has been exactly 30 years.
What is the definition of organic farming?
Organic farming from my definition is not only not using any toxic chemicals of any sort, but it is also farming biological. [This means] balancing the minerals to create a healthy environment for the microbes and creating an environment for the plants to grow, [which] creates the absolute best and most nutrient-dense food that we can. Foods that are not out of balance with just nitrogen, but have a balance of all 72 minerals the body needs.
How long does it take to become a Certified Organic farm and how much does it cost on average?
From the federal definition by the USDA, it takes three years. You have to have completed three years of organic practices without selling on the organic market to apply for organic certification. Then you still have to make sure there is no toxic chemical residue in that as well. That’s the standard. As far as actually getting organic soil, it takes much longer in this dry county then it would in intensive agriculture where you have plenty of decent water. It’s a very different thing, and it takes many more years because you only have biological activity for a short period of the year. Either it’s too cold or you don’t have enough moisture; it’s a very short window. So it takes a lot longer to really get bio-active soil when you’re talking dry county vs. irrigated ground.
The cost depends on the acreage and it depends on the crop, but basically what you’re looking at is you’re having to spend the money to farm organically. And roughly it costs twice as much to farm organically as it does conventionally. That’s the rule of thumb. However, you’re getting conventional prices for three years. So you’re looking at doubling your expenses and possibly not increasing your profits (possibly decreasing it a little bit) as your land is trying to adjust from high-nitrogen fertilization to getting the bacteria going. You pay for the inspector, which depends on how long it takes. So a very short inspection would be much cheaper than if you have a level of complexity [to your farm]. The inspection is done every year after that. There’s also a special fee for if you have livestock on your land, plus an annual fee which is based on how much you sell with a minimum fee of $1,000 no matter what.
Would it take longer for the residues of the pesticides to be washed from the ground?
My gut feeling would be yes because microbial action is what breaks a lot of those chemicals down. I don’t really have the science behind it because our farm has not used any of those things basically in my lifetime.
Will you lose your organic certification if you are forced to spray? What would the impact be to Azure?
Yes. If the whole place were sprayed, we would be talking about roughly $500 per year per acre, according to my figures and assuming we can still grow conventional crops on the land (which we have no interest in doing). If that were the case, the economic impact would be roughly $500 per year per acre. That would be the loss in revenue. So if you figure in an average year, you’re only growing half of the crop because you’re only growing every other year in that area, so it would be an economic hit of $500,000 to $700,000 per year.
What kind of weeds are a problem? What are noxious weeds? What is the volume of weeds on Azure Farm?
The ones that the county is actually worried about or talking to us about are Russian thistles, white top, morning glory and skeleton weed. Those are the four that have been brought up in this issue. Probably the other weed that has been a problem, and I think more to the neighbors than any of the other weeds, has been Jim Hill mustard. Because it’s a tumbleweed that blows around. It’s not classified by Oregon state as a noxious weed. When we bought the place as a conventional farm (in Moro), it was the very worst crop that we ever got because of weeds. And they had sprayed it. And that place was just covered in cheatgrass. We harvested it, and it was the worst crop we ever got because we bought it with the crop already in the ground. There were no broadleaf weeds, because they had sprayed them all. But cheatgrass or downy brome would smother the entire crop, and there was just nothing. We have very little cheatgrass now; it’s almost gone away. Weeds change based on the soil profile, and what’s being done with the soil. So under non-organic cultivation, 18 years ago, it had a horrible weed problem but it was just not as visible because cheatgrass is slightly smaller than wheat.
Oregon Ordinance on noxious weeds please refer here. There is a Class A list of weeds and a Class B list. All the weeds that are being talked about are Class B. The perception that there are a lot of weeds on Azure Farms in Moro is based on the Jim Hill mustard. There was a year, a couple years back, where there was a fairly significant amount of mustard in the field above town. And as it happened, we got a huge wind storm that snapped the weed from the ground. [The weeds] blew it into town thanks to those 50-60 mph winds. And now we’ve been very careful that when we harvest, we also mow before such a thing happens. Certainly people in town saw mustard tumbleweeds. But those were not the noxious weeds, and are not the ones at issue here.
What’s a super weed?
A super weed is a weed that is generally resistant to herbicides, and that’s what happens when people spray weeds over and over with herbicides. In the Midwest especially and especially in the deep south, there are lot of noxious weeds that have become super weeds that are resistant to herbicides and Roundup. I just heard that skeleton weed has become resistant to Milestone, which is the one they are recommending we spray. They see more of that in the Midwest, but we haven’t sprayed as much in Oregon as they have in the Midwest.
Was there no mention of (Milestone) or Roundup?
Well in my opinion Milestone is no better than Roundup. And, yes, in the actual communication from the county, there was no mention of Roundup. It was mentioned by neighbors and mentioned by other people. But not by the county. [Their] recommendation was Milestone. Milestone is residual. It holds in the soil for years and years. In fact there was a study in England where the grass in a pasture was sprayed with Milestone. That grass was then eaten by dairy cattle, and the manure from the dairy cattle was then composted and applied to a cucumber farm. Those cucumbers all died on emergence from the residue of Milestone in the manure from those cows. It’s exceedingly dangerous. Now, Roundup has been mentioned in the past by the county.
Are other farmers hurt by weeds?
Obviously other farmers, in their opinion, have to have a weed-free field, so other farmers spend money on herbicides to kill weeds. The theory for the farmers is that some of the weed seeds are coming from our land. Then they have to actually spray more herbicides than they would normally spray. I have no way of knowing if that’s the case or not the case. I can understand that there’s a slight added expense to killing additional weeds. But I also would conjecture that those are not noxious weeds that they’re talking about there. I just read a study that Canadian thistle fuzz looks like it blows, but most of the fuzz from the Canadian thistle does not hold seeds and it usually drops within 30 feet. Do we have Canadian thistle near other farmers? If so, it would be an extremely rare situation. I’m never gonna say that there could never be a stray weed seed that can be transported to another farm. But we also have to deal with our neighbors spraying their fields and the repercussions of that.
What are the weed control requirements for an organic farm and how are you complying with those requirements?
The requirements as we understand them is that we do not let noxious weeds go to seed. That’s the requirement that we read in the statute that we understand from our perspective. The weeds should be controlled by the best means available. In the past, we have done this through mowing and cultivation primarily. There are other things that we are planning to do, regardless of whether this had taken place or not, and that includes vinegar sprays as well as a comb weeder that will be very effective in crop growth. That should actually help a lot with the non-noxious weeds especially with mustard tumbleweeds that the town is worried about. It should be very effective against that. It’s new technology that we hope to have in place next year. It’s like a comb and at the very back of the comb there is a razor blade, to make it simple. As the comb goes over the wheat, the wheat tips down because it’s in a grassy state, while the weed goes through that comb and gets cut off. It doesn’t hoe it or dig it up, but it’s not going to have the body of a tumbleweed. It could also help with skeleton weed or Canadian thistle, I would guess.
Are there other organic farms in Sherman County?
There are two other organic farms that I am aware of.
What is the organic weed control program being used by Azure Farm?
The following email was submitted on May 17, 2017, by David Stelzer to Sherman County along with our weed management outline and an open letter to the Sherman Court and our neighbors.
Can weeds really be beneficial? How?
Weeds bring up nutrients that feed the soil. Ideally, we’d be doing that with crop rotation and other crops. But when we have to mono-crop, sometimes weeds do in fact happen. But they bring up nutrients, especially calcium. Calcium is pulled up a lot by wheat. Calcium deficient soils always produce more wheat. And because of the nature of the soil in Moro, it is very high in magnesium. Even though it is not low in calcium, the magnesium is so high you need extra calcium to balance that out. The calcium and magnesium ratio needs to be roughly 11:1. So you need extra calcium to balance that out. The weeds keep trying to pull calcium up from the soil to balance it with the magnesium. That’s one of the reasons weeds like to grow there in that particular soil type.
Is it possible to “eradicate” weeds from a property?
A particular weed can be eradicated, but not all weeds.
What are the side effects of herbicides and pesticides -- to the land specifically and to other native plants?
When you’re spraying with herbicides, it’s killing everything in that sphere. If it’s Roundup, it kills everything. It’s non-selective, and it just kills everything. There is no life whatsoever, and it’s dead, burned land. But the land is always trying to produce something. Land does not like to be barren. It’s made to have life on it. It’s always trying to grow something. Herbicides like Milestone are selective; it just kills certain weeds, but it has that residual effect. So the other thing that all the microbes in the soil get their nutrients from is the symbiotic relationship with the plants. Plants, through photosynthetic action, create sugar out of sunlight, water and oxygen. But sugar, and I’m using that term loosely, is the building block for energy for all life on earth. That includes people just as much as it includes microbes in the soil. So when you kill all the plants in that soil, there is nothing to produce sugar in that soil for those microbes. There is no symbiotic relationship that that microbe can have with a plant to get its energy source. Or it has to eat on any energy source left in the soil or it has to die. And usually there is not enough stored energy. Sometimes there’s a little bit of energy such as crop residue, but basically there is not enough sugar if there is nothing there. That is the biggest danger, excluding human health and water contamination of course.
Have Azure’s neighbors approached Azure?
Not that I am aware of. We’ve not had any neighbors approach Azure about a resolution. If we’ve been approached, it’s been by an elite department. It’s never been known that this was a problem for our neighbors until after this became public.
Why did the county get involved and have they warned Azure Farms before?
The county got involved because of a complaint of some sort. I don’t know that for a fact but that’s what the county said. I don’t doubt it either. And yes, when we tried biologicals on Canadian thistle, we’ve gotten warnings before that you need to get rid of those thistles. So we went in and mowed. So there has been communication with the weed department on specific issues has gone on off and on for a long time. But there’s never been an issue where they’ve said we’re not given you a choice. You have to spray.
Is it legal for them to demand a farm spray for noxious weeds?
There is an Oregon ordinance, of course, but I don’t believe that it is legal. I am not an attorney either. I do not believe that it’s moral even if it’s legal or not legal. It’s immoral. From an attorney’s perspective I don’t know the answer. But the law the way that I read it, just says the weeds need to be controlled and kept from going to seed. That’s the crux of the law. So I don’t see that there is any authority to come and spray the land, unless there is proof that the weeds go to seed and damage another farm.
Did Azure get “run out” of a neighboring county? Why?
No, Azure still farms in the neighboring county to this day. And we feel like we are a part of that community in Dufur. Yes, we were told that we couldn’t build a larger warehouse in an exclusive ag-use zone in Wasco County. We did make a request to change the zoning but they declined to do that. There were other commercially zoned areas in the county to build on but it was economically impossible to do that. That’s why we moved to Sherman County with the warehouse. Obviously, the rest of the operation and the bulk of the business is still done in Dufur.
Is Azure a “good neighbor?” What is Azure doing to work with other farmers in the county?
I feel like we are the very best neighbors in town because we are not dousing them with heavy doses of chemical and nitrates. The groundwater in Sherman County, even the well on our place, is way above the legal limit for nitrates and we are not adding to that problem. And we are not sending chemicals all over town so they might get a tumbleweed or two but they certainly aren’t getting toxic chemicals. We’ve not contributed to any cancer rate in Sherman County. I’m not saying there’s not cancer from other chemicals that are being used, but from that sense we are the best of neighbors. In my world, what I’m used to, if neighbors have a problem or if there’s an issue, you call the neighbor up and you sit down at the kitchen table in my house or yours and you talk about it. “We’re having trouble with your mustard getting into our place and I’m trying to grow seed there,” you might say. My response is what can we do to help you then? Let me help you with that. I can help you foot the bill for the 20 acres closest to our fence that will need to be sprayed or offer an organic solution. That’s the way I’m used to working with neighbors. That’s normal for me in Dufur; we work together to find a solution. Now some of our farming neighbors in Sherman County have come to us and worked with us, but the ones that didn’t instead file a formal complaint with the county. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Who were Azure’s representatives during the April 19 Sherman County meeting?
I don’t know that there were any representatives at that meeting, but we didn’t know about it until after the fact.
Who have you contacted for help?
We’ve contacted a lot of places. We’ve contacted Oregon Tilth, Oregon State University, Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Organic Alliance. We’ve also contracted with our consultant, David Knaus, to help with this problem. And that’s in a very short period of time. We’ve also heard from other places that have heard of the situation and offered to help. For the most part, they say we will do what we can.
There’s been concern from a few residents on Facebook that someone is offering to send militia to town to defend Azure Farms, and they were concerned that we had not been able to respond even after 48 hours. What are your thoughts on this turn of events?
I personally don’t have a Facebook account, and I’m very bad at keeping up with anything on that end. The Facebook communication has put us at a disadvantage or certainly I have been at a disadvantage, in answering all of that. But I can certainly assure that I have no intention of wanting anything but a peaceful resolution to this. I do not want fighting, certainly not physical fighting, and not legal fighting either. I’d prefer that we can all work together in a peaceful way. I certainly have not called in any militia and certainly won’t in any way.