Corporate Ag Watch: Agrichemical Company Influence in Oregon – Part I

In the last edition of our Corporate Ag Watch blog, we highlighted the plight of Oregon’s small farms in relation to the growth of Big Ag in our state, noting the problematic influence that unlimited corporate money in Oregon politics is having. We dove into the political and lobbying activities of out-of-state owned Threemile Canyon Farms, one of Oregon’s largest corporate agricultural operations.

We got a lot of feedback on that post, as many were surprised to learn about Oregon’s ‘no limits’ campaign finance system, and that we live in a state where large corporations with deep pockets are able to have such a tremendous amount of influence over the political and legislative decision-making process in our state.

In this edition of Corporate Ag Watch we’re going to take a look at the influence that one of the world’s largest multinational agrichemical companies is having here in Oregon: Monsanto. Pesticide maker and biotech crop developer Monsanto is based in Missouri, not Oregon, but they have invested a lot of money here – often through innocuous sounding front groups – to ensure their interests are represented in debates on the regulation of pesticides and genetically engineered crops.

Monsanto

According to publicly available state campaign finance reports, Monsanto has spent nearly $6.4 million on Oregon political campaigns over the past decade. Much of this money – $5.95 million – was spent in 2014 to oppose Ballot Measure 92. Measure 92 was a consumer right-to-know citizen initiative that would have required the labeling of genetically engineered food on store shelves. It ultimately lost by 837 votes out of more than 1.5 million cast.

The second biggest beneficiary of Monsanto political money in our state is the Oregon Farm Bureau Political Action Committee (PAC). The Oregon Farm Bureau PAC has received $133,500 from Monsanto over the past decade, often raised during an annual fundraising golf tournament that the Oregon Farm Bureau uses to raise money for its political activities. The tournament prominently sponsored by Monsanto for many years.

Other major recipients of Monsanto political funds in Oregon include the Oregonians for Food and Shelter PAC ($24,500) and FirstVote PAC ($48,500), which is directed by the staff of Oregonians for Food and Shelter. Oregonians for Food and Shelter is a pesticide advocacy group whose Board of Directors includes representatives of Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, and DuPont, in addition to the Oregon Farm Bureau and a number of large timber companies.

Monsanto has also given a combined $23,500 to two ‘Leadership’ PACs that support Republican candidates for the Oregon Senate and House.

More recently, Monsanto has begun giving to Political Action Committees for candidates directly, but over the years has primarily given to PACs like those controlled by the Oregon Farm Bureau, FirstVote and Oregonians for Food and Shelter. Those groups in turn give directly to candidates’ PACs.

If this all seems confusing, that may be by design. The tangled and sometimes confusing web of Political Action Committees that allow multinational biotech companies to support Oregon political candidates of their liking was covered by the Oregonian in 2013, “GMO companies contribute to lobby groups in Oregon Legislature.”

The innocuous sounding FirstVote PAC seems to be a primary vehicle for big companies to indirectly give to political candidates in Oregon. FirstVote PAC, which many in Oregon have likely never heard of, doesn’t even sound like it works on agricultural issues. Yet it supports many candidates with the money it receives from multinational agribusiness companies.

In addition to receiving $48,500 from Monsanto over the past ten years, FirstVote PAC has also taken $38,000 from Syngenta, another multinational biotech company, $8500 from Dow AgroSciences, and $5000 from DuPont.

As noted above, FirstVote PAC and the Oregon Farm Bureau PAC are two major vehicles that multinational agrichemical companies use as they seek to influence policy and politics in Oregon. Stay tuned for Part 2 of Corporate Ag Watch as we delve deeper into the influence of the agrichemical industry in Oregon.

Introducing the Corporate Ag Watch Blog

Since 2007, Friends of Family Farmers has provided a unique voice that challenges the influence and power of large corporate agribusiness interests in Oregon. We represent independent small and mid-sized family farmers, not out-of-state corporations or multi-national agribusiness companies. The same can’t be said for a number of other groups that purport to represent family farmers in Oregon. We are launching this blog to highlight the difference and expose the influence that corporate agribusiness interests have in our state.

Oregon agriculture is predominantly made up of small and mid-sized family farms. According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, of the approximately 35,500 farms in Oregon, 84% are individually or family owned. In terms of size, 81% of Oregon farms are under 180 acres, with over 61% under 50 acres. Additionally, 87% of Oregon farms have under $100,000 in sales per year. While some family farms may be larger in size or may be incorporated, smaller and mid-sized farms are the backbone of Oregon’s agricultural economy, our local and regional food systems, and many rural communities.

However, corporate agriculture is generally dominated by out-of-state companies whose primary concern seems to only be about profits, not the well-being of small and mid-sized farms. Despite Oregon’s small family farm reputation, large agribusiness companies spend a lot of money on lobbying and political activities here in order to make sure their interests are taken care of by the state’s policymakers.

In our new Corporate Ag Watch blog series, we’ll be digging up and exposing publicly available campaign finance and lobbying information to show how big corporate agribusiness interests seek to influence Oregon politics and policy. Our data sources will include ORESTAR (Oregon’s campaign finance reporting database), lobbying expenditure reports on file with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, and occasional public records requests. We’ll be connecting the dots between lobbying, campaign finance activity and policy outcomes that don’t often get covered in the Oregon press.

Unlimited Corporate Campaign Contributions in Oregon

Did you know that Oregon is one of only six states with no limits on corporate money in politics? This means that corporations can give unlimited money directly to the Political Action Committees that fund candidates and elected officials as they run for office. Twenty two states ban corporate campaign money completely, but Oregon is not one of them.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this means that individual corporations with deep pockets can have a tremendous amount of influence over the political process in Oregon.

For example, let’s take a look at Threemile Canyon Farms LLC, one of Oregon’s largest corporate farming operations and likely the nation’s largest dairy concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) with roughly 70,000 cows near Boardman, Oregon. With all those cows in confinement, Threemile Canyon Farms may be the state’s largest individual source of agricultural air pollution, including haze causing ammonia and methane, a potent climate change inducing gas. Already a huge operation, Threemile Canyon Farms is actually owned by an even bigger company out of North Dakota called R.D. Offutt, which also happens to be the nation’s largest potato producer and a key supplier of McDonald’s french fries.

The face of Oregon’s dairy industry has changed dramatically since Threemile Canyon Farms arrived here, with many small and mid-sized farms going out of business. According to USDA data, in a five year period shortly after Threemile arrived in Oregon in the early 2000s, the state lost nearly half its dairy farms, mostly small and mid-sized operations struggling to compete in a market increasingly dominated by larger and larger confinement dairies. Data from the Oregon Department of Agriculture shows a loss of over 140 permitted dairies in Oregon over the past decade – a nearly 40% decline – even as cow numbers have increased at large operations like Threemile.

An aerial view of Threemile Canyon Farms’ huge dairy CAFO and adjacent beef feedlot. For scale, white buildings housing dairy cows on the left side of the picture are 1/2 mile long.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Threemile Canyon Farms has been a staunch opponent of new rules to require large factory dairy farms like theirs to control harmful air emissions, and it has also been a shameless advocate for a lucrative tax credit it is the primary beneficiary of. We wrote about both these issues in a recent recap of the 2017 Oregon Legislative Session.

To represent its interests, Threemile Canyon Farms employs multiple lobbyists, one of the few individual farms in the state that has a lobbyist at all. According to filings with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, Threemile has spent nearly $200,000 on lobbying to influence the outcome of legislation in Salem since 2015. But Threemile also makes significant campaign contributions to Political Action Committees used to help elect and re-elect candidates for public office. According to filings with the Oregon Secretary of State, Threemile has given nearly 30 political candidates and elected office-holders of both parties more than $36,000 dollars combined for election campaigns since early 2016. Most of these contributions have been in $500 or $1000 increments and were primarily given to legislative leadership and legislators who chair key committees that help decide the fate of bills that could impact Threemile’s business interests. But the largest recipient of Threemile’s campaign contributions since early 2016 has been Governor Kate Brown, who has received $9,000 from the company so far.

The Oregon Board of Agriculture was treated to lunch by Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman in September 2015, days after Threemile General Manager Marty Myers was appointed to the Board by Governor Kate Brown. Representatives of R.D. Offutt, the Midwest based parent company of Threemile, also attended the lunch with top ODA officials.

In 2015, Governor Brown appointed Threemile Canyon Farms’ General Manager to the Oregon Board of Agriculture, a board that advises the Oregon Department of Agriculture on policy, regulatory and budget matters. In 2016, they successfully lobbied to extend a lucrative tax credit for animal manure digesters they benefit from that was set to expire at the end of 2017. With Threemile as the largest recipient of this tax credit, the Legislature’s decision to extend it will direct millions in public funds to their operation in coming years. In the 2017 Oregon Legislative Session, Threemile was also able to block a bill that would have enacted consensus recommendations for the creation of an air emissions program that would address air pollution from the state’s largest dairies.

That’s it for our first edition of Corporate Ag Watch. We hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for future posts as we keep digging into the influence of corporate agribusiness in Oregon. If you’ve got any tips or questions you’d like us to look into, just send us an email.