By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"He's a paid gun."
Nine hundred miles from Washington, D.C., in the tiny town of New Florence, Missouri (population 735), a farmer is gearing up for his spring lambing season, solidifying plans to sell his product at farmers' markets in St. Louis 80 miles to the east — and fretting that his state is next on the Humane Society's war map.
"Taking up this profession, you have to fight the weather, you have to fight disease, you have to fight so much," says Dave Hillebrand. "You shouldn't have to worry about the next piece of legislation coming down the pike."
The Humane Society is seeking a November ballot measure in Missouri — to outlaw so-called puppy mills. But it's an incursion that has the state's ag rank and file fearing the group will tackle farming and ranching next. Lawmakers are so rattled that the Missouri House of Representatives has issued a preemptive strike: It passed a proposed constitutional amendment to ban anyone from seeking a ballot measure concerning crops or livestock if it is not "based upon generally accepted scientific principles."
Hillebrand, though, is no industrial farmer. His 700 sheep nosh on fescue and perennial rye, sea salt and kelp. His operation involves no confinement. For the past ten years, Hillebrand's flock has had more than 160 acres to mow.
Yet he's just as scared as his large-scale competitors that broadly written laws formulated by outsiders could spell practices that are cost-prohibitive or that go against the grain of animal husbandry. "If they dictate to me how to treat my animals," says the sheepman, "I'll pull the plug."
It's not knee-jerk libertarianism, insist fellow small-scale farmers around the nation. "The food system in this country quite frankly sucks in every way possible, starting with food-safety issues, the whole nine yards," observes Iowa Farmers Union president Chris Petersen, who pasture-raises hogs on the Iowa-Minnesota border. "Now, whether it's Food & Water Watch or Humane Society at the national level, I think they're doing a lot of good work. At the same time, though, they're interfering."
Politics is a delicate art, Petersen elaborates. Outside groups can't parade into a state raising hell for old-school animal husbandry. "Let me give you an example," he says. "Bobby Kennedy Jr., who I am the best of friends with — I can call him on his cell phone! — he came to Iowa in 2002 and stepped in it real bad when he said CAFOs are a bigger threat to Americans than Osama bin Laden. It was a year before we recovered from that deal! Farm Bureau and all them guys were so mad. We lost a whole bunch of meat out of our back-end cheeks for that one."
Petersen reserves the right to weigh in on the Humane Society's agenda — he can't opine before talking to them, he says. But the larger point stands. The activists need to engage all kinds of farmers when trying to cut deals and remember the cardinal rule in politics: The locals know best.
"Look at Ohio," he adds. "I absolutely don't like the way Humane Society rolled into that state and basically ignored the people doing things the right way."
By "the right way," Petersen means the Ohio Farmers Union. In February last year, the Humane Society asked the Ohio Farm Bureau to help craft an anti-confinement law and shepherd it through the state legislature. The nonprofit didn't invite the farmers' union to the table, neither to weigh in nor to help broker a compromise when the talks broke down.
Farm bureau spokesman Joe Cornely recalls the rendezvous with the activists all too well. "Mr. Pacelle basically said, 'This is what we're going to do. You can help us or fight us.' Well, it's not a negotiation when somebody says, 'These are the terms of your surrender!'"
The state's commodity groups decided they weren't going to play ball. Instead, with the farm bureau's help, they launched their own ballot-measure campaign to create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board, a politically appointed regulatory group with full authority over animal-welfare issues.
The measure passed handily last November, and the tactic is now being copied in at least nine other states.
It's a development many animal-welfare advocates find troubling.
"The problem is that some of the language in these bills calls for including 'generally accepted farm-management practices' — and that includes confinement farming. So they want to codify that as an accepted standard," says Kramer, at the National Anti-Vivisection Society. "It would make it harder to change later on, or to bring suits against a particular farm that was excessively harming animals."
Ohio is the nation's second-largest egg producer and ranks ninth in hog production. Those and other industries last year spent more than $4 million on the standards-board campaign — and they'll likely have to open their checkbooks once again this election cycle.
"We didn't spend one dime to oppose [the board]," says Pacelle. "We didn't like it. We thought it was clearly an attempt to block a constitutional freedom and an attempt to lock up existing practices." He adds: "They spent $4 million passing it, and there's still a [ballot] measure."