ASHLAND -- A Jackson County hearings officer Wednesday denied a land-use permit for the operation of a slaughterhouse at Uproot Meats farm, also known as Uproot Ashland.
The application was for a Type II land-use permit to construct a slaughterhouse -- or "facility for the processing of farm crops" under state law -- for processing pigs and roughly 13,000 chickens annually on exclusive farm use land, according to Uproot co-owner Krista Vegter. Uproot Meats' pigs are currently slaughtered and butchered off site.
Jackson County had tentatively approved a two-story meat-processing facility and a one-story chicken house Nov. 27, and so construction began.
But neighbors who opposed the slaughterhouse banded together to form a coalition called “Don’t Uproot Ashland,” and appealed the application at a public hearing Jan. 7. Jackson County Hearings Officer Roger Pearce issued his findings Wednesday.
Vegter said the business has followed all the necessary rules, despite complaints from neighbors.
“We applied for this license because we work really hard to raise these animals, and we weren’t satisfied with the butchers we were going to,” Vegter said. “We value product quality and quality of life for the animals.
“We want to uproot factories, not uproot Ashland,” Vegter said.
Uproot owners said their animals are free-range and live happy, natural lives feeding on seasonal foods from Oregon and Northern California such as peas, sunflowers, pumpkins, and flax and sesame seeds.
Vegter said the farm is in compliance with relevant codes, and the reason the permit was denied was because of a “gray area” regarding “farm crops.” According to Pearce, “The Hearings Officer cannot find a single instance in the Oregon statutes or Oregon administrative rules where ‘farm crops’ means anything other than agricultural crops.”
“The Hearings Officer concludes that a facility for farm crop processing as envisioned by the Legislature ... does not include the processing of pigs or other livestock, except for poultry processing ... which allows the slaughter of not more than 1,000 poultry for use as human food during any single calendar year.”
Vegter said she was told by the county that Uproot Meats is not the only farm experiencing this discrepancy in language. She said she intends to appeal Pearce’s decision at the state level.
“We’ve kind of been tossed around like rag dolls trying to grow local food,” Vegter said. “I have faith that Jackson County will provide and create a code to allow for local foods, because we’re in Oregon and this is farm country, and I think Ashland is a little backwards about it. We like to farm on our farmland.
“This is about empowering a small, female-owned and -operated farm in Ashland,” Vegter said.
She said she encourages people to read Uproot Meats’ blog, at www.uprootmeats.com/blog-1, which addresses public concerns about such topics as animal cruelty, the business’ waste management plan and the farm’s impact on the Talent Irrigation District canal.
“We met all the criteria for the license, but the Planning Department issued us an incorrect application,” Vegter said.
Members of Don’t Uproot Ashland have argued the business is operating without permits. Pearce noted in his decision that Vegter is working to remedy earlier violations, including grading the property and adding a second story to her barn without permits.
As for other claims by the group, such as Uproot Meats processing farm products on site or using the second floor of the barn as an non-permitted residence, Pearce said there is no documented violation or code enforcement action to substantiate those claims.
In regard to neighbors’ claims of violations of Oregon Department of Agriculture or DEQ regulations, “... there is also no evidence of any existing or pending state or federal land use enforcement action,” he said.
“A good 80 percent of accusations toward us are false with zero evidence,” Vegter said.
Several neighbors gave testimony at the appeal hearing about problems Uproot Meats allegedly caused for surrounding farms, and more than 100 opponents attended the hearing, according to appellant Denise Krause.
Neighbors voiced concerns about E. coli contamination to ground and well water, hillside erosion and disturbance to surrounding farms and businesses.
Krause said a lot of the opponents are farmers themselves and that they’re all for small farms, especially those with organic practices, but the location of this farm is a problem.
In a press release, Krause wrote, “We are strong advocates for small farms. We care deeply about fresh, local, organic, pesticide-free produce. We recognize the compelling need for humanely raised and slaughtered meat.”
Several participants in the “Don’t Uproot Ashland” group said the position of the slaughterhouse is not a good place to run a meat-processing business.
Krause said the property has a 36-degree slope straight down to the TID canal and neighboring farms.
Hyiah Sirah, who lives about 200 to 300 feet from Uproot Meats, said her property is split by a driveway. On either side of the driveway is pasture for her milking goals and other livestock. The driveway is closed off by two automatic gates, which Uproot Meats uses to access its property on the hill via an easement agreement.
She said Uproot employees have a tendency to open the gate from far away, allowing her animals to escape. She said she’s had to switch to irregular milking and grazing times to keep this from happening. She said Uproot has broken the gate four times, the most recent time knocking the gate out of the ground entirely. She said she’s also lost two farmhands since Uproot has been her neighbor.
She estimated a loss of between $7,000 and $10,000, and said Uproot hasn’t offered any compensation.
Another neighbor, Douglas Kay, said some neighbors have performed two E. coli tests in the TID canal, which they gave to the Nielsen Research Corp. in Medford.
He said because the water is considered agricultural, the level of E. coli in the water is acceptable. He said next time they intend to have an independent contractor perform the test to ensure there’s no conflict of interest.
Some neighbors have experienced springs popping up on their property and seepage from the farm operating on the hill.
Krause said the group is encouraged by the permit denial.
“It’s very encouraging when the system works for its citizens,” Krause said. “It’s been a long process, and I think that the hearings officer was very thorough and very thoughtful, and I’m just very glad that we have prevailed.
“The effects of what you do on your property doesn’t stop because you cross the property line,” Krause said. “You can’t ethically operate like you’re in a vacuum.”
Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at email@example.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.