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Buckeye Farm News
For nearly a year, Ohio farmers were preparing to lock horns with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) over a ballot issue that would place a constitutional ban on certain livestock housing methods.
A victory by farmers would have dealt a blow to HSUS but certainly would not have ended the group's efforts; a defeat could have shuttered a large portion of Ohio pork and egg production, rocked Ohio’s farm economy and overturned the accomplishments of Issue 2, which placed animal care decisions in the hands of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.
Given public opinion, the odds of winning looked to be about 50/50 if farmers ran an effective campaign.
However, there were known costs.
To engage in the battle, Ohio farmers and others would have to ante up $10 to $15 million to get their message out in a crowded election year. Perhaps more costly would be the emotional and ugly campaign waged by animal agriculture’s opponents.
Decades of investment and gains farmers have made in building relationships with the public through agriculture in the classroom programs, farm tours, farmer’s share breakfasts, media promotions and other outreach events could have been wiped away by a multimillion dollar blitz of television commercials that inundate consumers with horrific images of animal abuse.
On top of that, HSUS was putting in place its plans to connect farmers to environmental and health problems, to divide the farm and veterinary communities and to gather endorsements from religious leaders, a tactic to imply that contemporary livestock production is immoral. Consumer trust in agriculture was going to be shaken.
But with no other option, standing up to HSUS’s ballot challenge was the right course of action. The costs of letting the group rewrite Ohio’s Constitution with unworkable rules were far too high. And the accomplishments of 2009's Issue 2 had to be protected. For months, farmers were gearing up for what was sure to be one of the most difficult political and public relations challenges to ever face Ohio agriculture.
“We had a plan in place to win at the ballot box. But that came at a high price,” acknowledged Jack Fisher, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau. “It took a lot of resources last year. It would take even more resources this year. And no matter if we win or lose at the ballot this year, HSUS would keep coming back.”
A New Development
As farm organizations were putting in place their strategy for the fall election, a call came from the governor’s office indicating there may be an alternative to the contentious campaign.
But should Ohio farmers settle for anything less than going head to head with HSUS in an all or nothing political battle? What would be gained? What could be lost? The looming threat that HSUS would rewrite the rules for Ohio agriculture was already deteriorating Ohio’s agricultural business climate. According to several industry leaders, uncertainty about the future was preventing farmers from investing in their operations.
Ohio Farm Bureau’s board of trustees grappled with these issues over the course of two days at the June board meeting. They ultimately decided that if the organization was going to consider an alternative to the ballot box, five principles should be maintained.
- Preserve agricultural unity – one of HSUS’s most successful tactics in other states had been to divide farm organizations.
- Protect the full authority of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board – an independent body of Ohio farmers, veterinarians, consumer advocates and others should ultimately determine Ohio animal care policy.
- Create a positive business climate to keep Ohio’s farmers competitive.
- Maintain bipartisan political support.
- Strengthen the partnership between farmers and consumers.
Likewise, the farmer-leaders of the Ohio Pork Producers Council, Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, Ohio Dairy Producers Association, Ohio Poultry Association, Ohio Corn Growers Association and Ohio Soybean Association considered how to proceed. After extensive discussion, all farm groups agreed that there was an alternative to a ballot fight.
Ohio Farm Bureau then joined the leaders of these six commodity organizations and Gov. Strickland in talks with HSUS.
The talks yielded a major development: HSUS would publicly support the livestock board as the appropriate channel for dealing with its concerns, which means its concerns will go to the board instead of the ballot box.
In the end, the farm groups remained united, the Livestock Care Standards Board wasn’t forced to adopt HSUS’s rules, Ohio farmers could invest in their operations with more certainty and the relationship between farmers and consumers would not be strained.
“The marketplace is demanding that we make changes. The agreement allows us the proper amount of time to transition in terms of what we’re learning from our customers,” Fisher said.
HSUS’s ballot measure had called for a constitutional ban on sow gestation stalls within six years, which would have been a difficult transition for many hog farmers.
The stalls, which provide numerous advantages for managing pregnant sows, have raised concerns because they limit the space available to the animal.
Rather than risk the viability of farms at the ballot box, the farm groups said that issuing a recommendation to the Livestock Care Standards Board to phase out existing stalls by 2025 was a reasonable approach. The stalls have a lifespan of 15 years, so farmers who have recently built barns would be able to recoup their full investment. And the ability to modify, rather than eliminate, some practices is a more attractive option. Additionally, some producers in the United States and Canada had already announced that they would be replacing their stalls with alternative systems due to consumer demand, a move that many in the industry were eventually expected to follow.
In addition, HSUS had wanted a constitutional mandate that veal calves be kept in group housing. The American Veal Association had already said that it supported moving to group housing by 2017. Again, rather than spending millions to fight at the ballot box, farm groups agreed to forward the veal association’s plan as a recommendation to the Livestock Care Standards Board.
HSUS was also seeking constitutional language that would essentially ban cages for chickens, which would have upended Ohio’s egg industry. Farm groups said they were willing to make a recommendation to the livestock board that existing farms with cages be allowed to keep and expand their facilities as new cage operations are put on hold while further research, jointly funded by agriculture and HSUS, is done to evaluate housing options.
The farm groups also agreed to recommend that the Livestock Care Standards Board move forward on banning other practices that farmers already find unacceptable , including certain methods of euthanasia.
Other non-livestock issues in the agreement included raising the penalty for cockfighting to be consistent with federal law and addressing dog breeding and wild and dangerous animal issues.
Ohio Farm Bureau said it could facilitate discussions regarding a dog breeding bill at the Statehouse, and would seek to protect traditional animal husbandry practices.The organization made no commitments in regard to wild and dangerous animals.
Randy Brown, an Ohio hog farmer who manages about 650 sows in gestation stalls, said he understands that nobody in the farm community particularly liked sitting down with HSUS, but he supported the agreement.
“When you look at what this campaign was going to cost, millions and millions of dollars, this makes more sense. I think 15 years gives us enough time to look at how we raise our sows,” he said. “And just think what those videos of abused animals would cost us in terms of our consumers.”
However, other farmers have said they felt shocked and betrayed by the decision, many posting comments on Ohio Farm Bureau’s website. Some farm newspapers editorialized against the agreement while The Columbus Dispatch said it was good for Ohio and will allow the voter-approved Livestock Care Standards Board to do its job.
At the same time, many of the individuals who supported HSUS’s ballot initiative complained that their signature gathering efforts were wasted and that the agreement was too soft on farmers.“The thing that hit me first was it would have been really great to have those ads on TV,” said one supporter.
It will now be up to the Livestock Care Standards Board to determine how to proceed with the recommendations.
In an interview with ABN Radio, Director of Agriculture Robert Boggs, who serves as chairman of the livestock board, said the recommendations provide helpful guidance on controversial and confrontational issues. But he said the board will continue to consider recommendations from others as well.
“These are recommendations, they’re not commandments,” Boggs said, adding that “we’ll do what we started from the very beginning, pulling out the very best recommendations and ideas and formulating standards from those things. In some degrees, I think some of the things that they want will be there, in other cases we’ll have even better ideas.”
There is nothing that prevents HSUS from bringing a ballot initiative in future years, but the organization has now publicly agreed to play by the rules established by Issue 2, a major win for those who worked to pass the measure last year. If HSUS plans to return with another ballot initiative, the agreement has certainly made their job more difficult.
“Issue 2 and the Care Board puts Ohio agriculture in a position of strength,” said OFBF’s Fisher in an audio interview detailing the agreement.
The Livestock Care Standards Board has retained its full authority, and with no ballot initiative in 2010, the board has time to continue to gain the confidence of the public.
However, Fisher said farmers can’t drop their guard against HSUS.
“Their mission is to put us out of business, in my opinion. They have not backed off of their mission, nor have we. This is one event in many more to come,” he said.
Much of this decision comes back to Ohio Farm Bureau’s goal to “forge a partnership between farmers and consumers that meets consumer needs and ensures agricultural prosperity in global marketplace.”
It is a long-term effort that requires a long-term strategy.
“We want to maintain the opportunity to feed the world,” Fisher said.
Who was at the table?
The Ohio Farm Bureau, the Ohio Pork Producers Council, the Ohio Poultry Association, the Ohio Cattlemen's Association, the Ohio Dairy Producers Association, the Ohio Soybean Association, the Ohio Corn Growers Association and the Humane Society of the United States. The meeting was called by Gov. Ted Strickland.
How does this affect the achievements of Issue 2?
Ohio farmers are in a position of strength because they had campaigned for Issue 2 and the creation of the Livestock Care Standards Board. The board has retained its full authority to determine Ohio's animal care standards. HSUS has withdrawn its ballot initiative and agreed to take its concerns to the voter-approved livestock board.
Ohio Farm Bureau will continue to provide updates on various aspects of the agreement here on ofbf.org. To receive the latest updates, subscribe to the OFBF News RSS Feed or follow Ohio Farm Bureau on Twitter.