Having a Cow

Big farms won at the polls last year. Now big animal lovers want their revenge.

By Anastasia Pantsios

On a Monday evening in May, Satan has come to Solon. Sun streams in through picture windows, bathing the crowd of 50 who have gathered in the community center meeting room to hear the impossibly dynamic speaker. He's the type of guy — tall and well-groomed, with glossy black hair flecked with gray at the sides, an athletic stride, and energetic delivery — that you might expect to find peddling a scheme for getting rich on real estate investments.

But Wayne Pacelle is peddling something very different. He is the CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, better known to its very vocal enemies as the radical, out-of-state animal-rights group that aims to impose its will on Ohioans.

But for this group on this night, Pacelle doesn't have to do much. "He doesn't even have to say anything; I'll do whatever he wants," sighs one woman as she eyes Pacelle.

But even if he were fat and unsightly, Pacelle's message would be lapped up by this audience of primarily middle-aged women from Cuyahoga and surrounding counties. Most have already signed on to the mission: gathering the 402,275 valid signatures needed to put a package of three issues on Ohio's November ballot pertaining to the treatment of livestock animals.

The measures would end confinement practices like gestation crates for sows and cages for laying hens; they would bar sick or "downer" animals from entering the food supply, and they would prohibit strangulation and other inhumane types of euthanasia for farm animals. Pacelle's on a whirlwind tour of Ohio to energize the volunteers. The Humane Society has put 27 issues on ballots in different states, he tells them, and he doesn't intend to have Ohio be his first failure.

Pacelle's smooth, tanned face and neat jeans and jacket contrast with the plainer dress of the four weather-worn farmers he parades before the crowd. Tom Harrison — who serves as the campaign's treasurer — is a retired sheep farmer from Wood County, south of Toledo. He's balding, with a raspy voice that recalls Senator Sherrod Brown's. "I'm a meat eater," he says. "I've raised sheep for 30 years. You ought to treat them with dignity. Animals aren't a commodity, and that's what you're seeing on factory farms. I'm glad the Humane Society came into Ohio on this issue. It makes people more aware of the food chain."

Kevin Fulton, a heavyset younger farmer with a toothy smile and self-confident manner, has flown in from Nebraska. ("There's people in Nebraska, if they knew I was here my house would be burned down," he quips.) He talks about his journey from assembly-line agriculture to chemical-free, open-pasture farming. Confinement farming, he says, is "taking dignity from animals, putting them in concentration camps."

There's a lot of such emotional language — and grisly pictures — being used to frame an issue that most Ohioans are remote from in this post-agricultural society. These plays on emotion are what worry the Ohio Farm Bureau, a group as demonized by animal-rights and environmental activists as the Humane Society is by livestock farmers. But the Farm Bureau is not averse to emotional appeals of its own.

Last year, Issue 2 — which called for the formation of a Livestock Care Standards Board — hit the November ballot seemingly out of the blue, catching a lot of people, including the Humane Society, by surprise. Unlike many issues, placed on the ballot by painstaking gathering of signatures by volunteers or armies of well-funded paid petitioners, the state legislature voted to put this one on the ballot.

The powerful Farm Bureau was all in. Teams of slick PR representatives attended community meetings and public forums, telling people that even though there were no problems with livestock agriculture in Ohio — animals were being treated well, and the food supply was safe from sick animals — we need this board as a preemptive measure. Against what? It seemed that legislators and voters in other states were passing laws to limit caging of animals, practices that enhanced the smooth functioning and profitability of huge factory farms, or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), as they are known to insiders.

And if that happened in Ohio, they claimed, farms would go belly-up and jobs would be lost. When it appeared listeners were still sitting on the fence — many find the idea of CAFOs innately repugnant — the Issue 2 people played their emotional card: The whole thing is a plot by animal-rights activists to force everyone to become vegans, they claimed. They're coming to take away your hamburgers and buffalo wings! (Pacelle's enemies point out that he is a vegan, although he doesn't make an issue of it.)

Issue 2 passed without significant opposition. There were rumors that the Humane Society was holding its fire, planning to come back the following year with its own package of regulations. And that's just what happened.

"When Issue 2 was going through, we didn't see it as a poisonous package but an empty one," says Karen Minton, state director of Ohioans for Humane Farms, the campaign to pass the new regulations. "But Issue 2 was dominated by agribusiness. What the Humane Society was interested in was to ensure there were some common-sense minimum standards." Issue 2 theoretically gives large factory farms the ability to regulate livestock farming practices — or not, as they choose — but until the 11-member Livestock Care Standards Board is appointed, its direction is impossible to discern.

Ohio voters didn't approve or reject any particular livestock-care practices. But Ohio Farm Bureau senior director of communications Joe Cornely says, "The night of the election [the Humane Society] said, 'Voters, you don't know what you're doing. Our ideas are better.' That very night they promised they were going to come in and overturn the will of Ohio's voters. They are now in the process of trying to put a measure on the ballot that would take their philosophies and beliefs and put those into the Ohio constitution. They want to dictate what this care-standards board would do."

The Farm Bureau sees these new regulations not only as unnecessary, but as the very death of agriculture. Disallowing the confinement practices will be so costly, it claims, that many farmers will be driven out of business while food prices soar.

That's the opinion of poultry farmer Tim Weaver, whose farm in Darke County (on the Indiana border, north of Dayton) was started by his grandfather and grand-uncle in 1929; he intends to pass the business on to his sons, one of whom already works with him. He calls the proposed cage ban "the death of a dream."

"I'm not exaggerating when I tell you if this happens, in six or seven years I'm out of business," says Weaver, whose farm houses four and a half million chickens and employs 300 people. "That's not a comforting thought when you've spent since 1929 building a business, and an activist group puts you out of business. To destroy a family's dreams, it's really, really troubling."

Weaver says sick animals in the food supply are not an issue.

"We have the safest food supply in the world. It's...I would use the word 'misguided.' I don't know their motivation. Some have a vegan agenda. Some are conceivably anti-capitalists. Some are truly concerned about welfare of animals. But no one is more concerned about welfare of animals than me; they're my livelihood.

"I felt establishment of the [livestock] board was good," says Weaver. "We were going to have input from a lot of people, access to a lot of research. They may tell me in time that I have to change my pens, but there will have been a lot of thought and research, not an activist group going, 'We don't like what the voters said last year.' My concern is that activist groups are going to mislead them and use an emotional appeal."

It's hard to argue that emotional appeal is not part of what's going on. Talk of regulating confinement practices might not be incendiary enough to motivate voters. But footage of a pig being strangled certainly is — and the Humane Society's addition of that plank seems designed to make use of a video depicting exactly that, shot on a Wayne County farm in 2007. In Solon, Pacelle showed the image of the hanging pig, stamped "Legal in Ohio" in bright red letters.

The "ick" factor is very high, and the Humane Society clearly knows it.

Ken and Joe Wiles, the farmers involved, were tried and acquitted because such practices are perfectly legal in Ohio, a state known for its lax animal-protection laws. The acquittal — and the Farm Bureau's support of the farmers — were fuel for animal-rights activists. But those who oppose the measures say that the incident was an anomaly and that banning the practice of strangulation is overkill.

"Sick animals is a marketing ploy," says Cornely. "It's already illegal to put sick animals into the system. Likewise, euthanasia of farm animals. There was the unfortunate incident of the sow [being strangled]. Those two specific items, I believe, were written into [the proposed regulations] to use the video they have in television commercials. No farmer I know believes that was the proper way to euthanize an animal. It was an aberration caught on video that is now going to be portrayed as standard operating procedure on hog farms."

Cornely's opinion is shared by Bryan Black, a pork producer who raises about 1,500 animals on his Fairfield County farm in central Ohio.

"Not to let downer animals into the food system is a nonstarter, because in federally inspected plants no downer animals go in," he says. "It's just a way for [the Humane Society] to use the video of a downed animal. Same with strangulation. No one I have spoken to since the incident at Wiles' farm occurred has ever heard of it before or since. No one uses that form of euthanasia. By allowing that on the ballot, it allows [the Humane Society] to use the video in commercials."

With a deadline of June 30, the Humane Society's Ohio team is working hard to collect the signatures it needs, with more than 1,000 volunteers canvassing Ohio. The same sort of earnest women who attended the meeting in Solon have gathered in an upstairs meeting room at a church on the Brecksville town square on another Monday night to talk about how to gather signatures and report their progress. As they go around the room introducing themselves, many note that they rescue dogs or volunteer at their local shelter. But there are lots of first-timers. I'm not political, many of them say. I've never done anything like this.

Opponents demonize the campaign as driven by out-of-state activists — indeed, the U.S. Humane Society is providing the resources and organization — but these foot soldiers are from places like Wooster and North Olmsted.

At the early May meeting in Brecksville, the campaign was about halfway to its signature goal, and organizers reassured volunteers that the real push always comes in the final weeks.

Then on May 26, a story broke that threw the Humane Society's petition campaign into a higher gear: The Chicago-based animal-rights group Mercy for Animals (which does, incidentally, envision a vegan world) held a Cleveland press conference to release videotape of cows and calves being beaten — some to death — at Conklin Dairy Farms in Plain City, a speck on the map northwest of Columbus. The horrifying footage, shot by a Mercy for Animals worker who went undercover at the farm, went viral, and the Ohio Farm Bureau leaped into damage-control mode.

It condemned the acts in a statement that same day, adding, "We are also concerned that this incident will be manipulated for political gain by animal-rights activists. Any attempt to portray these horrific acts as commonplace on Ohio farms would be deceitful. Farmers take care of their livestock because it's what decent people do and because comfortable animals are productive animals. Farmers should not be judged by this aberrant and disgusting event."

Opponents of the proposed regulations insist that animal-rights activists won't be satisfied until livestock agriculture is driven out of business. Given that the Humane Society's Paul Shapiro heads up the group's End Factory Farming Campaign, it would seem that eliminating CAFOs is indeed on their agenda.

"Seven states have passed these modest reforms," says Shapiro. "We have done these type of ballot measures in three other states. All of them passed overwhelmingly, despite resistance from the agribusiness lobby."

Florida's passage of the measure has prevented large farms from coming into the state, Shapiro says, adding that it is the only state of the three whose law has taken effect. "It's opened up the field for family farms. These laws are extraordinarily modest. They require that farm animals be able to turn around and extend the limbs. The agribusiness people claim it will lead to Armageddon, but you have to question their claims. These campaigns are endorsed by a lot of farmers themselves.

"These are the type of places that not only abuse animals," he adds, "but are often major polluters and can devastate communities."

Chef Parker Bosley, former owner of Parker's Bistro in Ohio City, now focuses on helping educate people about sustainable, local food. He grew up milking cows on his family's dairy farm in Trumbull County, and today he echoes Shapiro's assertions about the impact of factory farms on rural Ohio.

"One of the reasons I was drawn to this campaign is I loathe industrial farms," says Bosley. "The waste produced by these CAFOs is comparable to a small city. A cow in a confinement situation produces as much waste as 18 people." Animals free to roam, on the other hand, merely fertilize their pasture. (Bosley wrote "Don't Eat That," an editorial on sustainable agriculture published in Scene in October 2009.)

Heated debate has surrounded a proposed farm of six million chickens in Darke County, where Tim Weaver's large chicken farm is also located. According to a recent Columbus Dispatch article, the new farm would produce nearly 75,000 tons of manure a year. That's a lot of manure to manage.

In addition, the shrinking number of farms in Ohio, even while farm output has increased, has had an adverse effect on rural communities, Bosley laments.

"Industrial farming has devastated rural America," he says. "Instead of having 20 farms that buy from the local hardware store, send kids to local schools, join the local clubs, you have one huge farm owned by a corporation. And that money goes out of your community."

So it looks like a battle of corporate farming versus family farming — but it's not that simple.

Pork producer Black thinks there's a lot of romanticizing going on by people who don't understand farming.

"I have gone through the evolution of the pasture-raised system, what's now termed 'natural' or 'organic,'" he says. "I would never look to go back to that again. The public has absolutely no information on agriculture. The Old MacDonald view of what a farm is supposed to look like is pigs, cows, and roosters wandering around in a pasture outside in sunshine. That scenario only happens 30-40 days in Ohio. The rest of the time it's too cold, too hot, or too rainy. The care we can give to individual animals is so much greater now than in a pasture situation."

Poultry farmer Weaver points to the costs of moving away from a confinement system. "There's no way I have access to the capital so I could change all my buildings and infrastructure to what these groups want me to. It would be $100,000,000 — $35 per chicken. Going from animals in pens to animals not in pens, it's an emotional hook they use to get people."

Weaver also carries organic cage-free eggs, but they make up only about 4 percent of his business.

But that could change as people become more acclimated to different ways of eating. The popularity of films like Super Size Me and Food Inc., books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and the rapid growth of farmers' markets show that people are starting to think beyond the mass-produced food industry that CAFOs serve.

Bosley has been a constant presence in the campaign, gathering signatures with a bright green clipboard outside a recent event devoted to expanding the market for locally grown food. He came to the local food movement about 25 years ago when he was running the kitchen at Sammy's in the Flats and realized that the quality of the food they were serving would be better if the ingredients were better.

That led him to think more about how food was being produced.

"Animal confinement is horrific in every way," he says. "To keep laying hens in cages that are stacked up, they have to give them a lot of antibiotics or they would die. They never get outside, they never have a natural diet, so the eggs they produce are not good for us."

He scoffs at claims that a vegan agenda is behind this campaign.

"What is the possibility of that ever happening? You want to see a revolution, you tell a guy at East 93rd and Union he can't have meat anymore. It's totally a red herring."

Doug Katz, chef-owner of Shaker Square's Fire Food and Drink, is another supporter of the ballot measure.

"The more you connect with your food, the more you respect it," says Katz. "I have customers who say they won't eat meat unless it's humanely raised — not a lot, but occasionally. But it made me realize I need to look into it. I'm not one who debates whether eating meat is OK or not. But if you're eating meat, you need to make sure it's from sources who treat animals humanely. Factory farms have such a lack of connection with what they're feeding people. They're just trying to be as efficient as possible."

Bruce Rickard, who raises hormone-free, pasture-feeding hens, cattle, and sheep at his Fox Hollow Farm in Knox County in central Ohio, is another speaker at the meeting in Solon. He looks like an aging hippie with his gray beard, rimless glasses, and T-shirt bearing the Gandhi quote "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." But he's not one of those militant vegans the Farm Bureau warns about. He just thinks people are ready for a healthier, more humane way of raising food animals.

"We face our customers across the table every day," he says. "They tell us what they're looking for. We have lots of former vegetarians because they have a place [to get meat] they can trust. They can tour the farm, go anywhere on the farm, see how the animals are raised. Farmers have to start listening to their customers."

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