*UPDATE* – The remainder of the interview has been posted below.
Ohio Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President Jack Fisher, in an exclusive conversation with Ohio’s Country Journal, answered many frequently asked questions that have been brought forth since an agreement was announced between Ohio agriculture and the Humane Society of the United States on June 30.
Ohio’s Country Journal features the conversation on its website today. Below is the first Q&A from the conversation, followed by a list of the questions Fisher answered.
OCJ: How does this agreement affect Issue 2 and the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board?
Jack: The work farmers put into passing Issue 2 is paying off. Farmers said the Care Board was the proper way to handle complex questions about farm animal care. Ohio voters agreed. Now, HSUS acknowledges this. Without the Care Board, the only option to deal with animal issues would be costly, damaging ballot fights. That hasn’t worked out too well in other states.
Farm groups will now make recommendations to the Board that are believed to be acceptable ways to deal with some very contentious issues. The Board will consider recommendations from others as well. HSUS has committed to get in line with everyone else who wants to share an opinion. The Board will make its own decisions, just as intended under Issue 2.
OCJ: If the board doesn’t follow the recommendations, won’t HSUS just come back with its ballot initiative?
Jack: They could. But they would have to explain to Ohio voters why they doubled-back on their public promise to support the Board’s authority and Ohio’s constitutional model of governance. It will be a much tougher position to argue from. The agreement has certainly turned public opinion in our favor when it comes to any future challenges to the Care Board.
OCJ: Doesn’t this just give HSUS a foot in the door to move on to increasingly tougher rules until we are no longer able to produce meat, milk and eggs?
Jack: The fact is that HSUS was already in the house. Their $100 million budget is the battering ram that got them there. A win against HSUS in November wouldn’t have dealt them a deadly blow, but rather a temporary setback. We could continue down this path year after year, throwing money into political campaigns until we were finally outspent.
The root of the problem is that consumers feel regulation is needed to address their concerns. We may not like it, but it is reality. So change is inevitable. Do we try to stop the truck by jumping in front of it, or do we get behind the wheel and control our destination?
Because of Issue 2 and the agreement, we have proven to consumers we are serious about dealing with animal issues. If we cultivate our relationship with consumers with the same enthusiasm that we have fought HSUS, we will effectively cut off our opponents’ path to establishing unworkable new rules. Our trump card is that HSUS’s agenda can only go as far as Ohio consumers allow it. And we have a better story to tell.
OCJ: Why is the deal being reported as a Farm Bureau-HSUS agreement?
Jack: Ohio’s beef, corn, dairy, pork, poultry and soybean organizations along with Farm Bureau made up the Ohioans for Livestock Care coalition, which worked together on Issue 2 and during the talks with the governor and HSUS. As the executive for Ohio’s largest farm organization, and the only one who could speak across commodity lines, I had a more visible role. Members of the media, reporting to a non-agricultural audience, chose to use Farm Bureau as a familiar shorthand for all of the members of the agricultural coalition.
It is important to note, each commodity organization, and Farm Bureau, came to individual conclusions on whether to negotiate, and then what to give and get. Without unanimous consent among the groups there would have been no deal. Unlike other states where HSUS has been able to divide and conquer, Ohio maintained unity.
OCJ: Did you throw pet breeders and other animal breeders under the bus?
Jack: No. HSUS wanted the non-livestock provisions in the overall agreement, and we explained repeatedly that we had no standing to represent any animal breeders other than livestock. The non-livestock provisions will be addressed by HSUS, the governor’s office and appropriate state agencies. In regard to OFBF’s position on the non-livestock issues:
OFBF opposes cockfighting.
We will engage in the dog breeding discussions; our commitment is to help find workable common ground. We also will work to protect the animal-owners’ rights to utilize responsible animal husbandry and business practices in areas such as genetics, nutrition, housing and marketing (including the auction system).
The agreement’s provisions regarding wild and dangerous animals are between HSUS and the governor’s office. We are encouraging these breeders to work with their elected officials and state agencies and will assist any Farm Bureau members who are impacted.
Additionally, we will talk with any animal trade association regarding how the Care Board concept might serve as a model for other animal industries. All animal producers can benefit from a system that meets animal owners’ needs while satisfying consumer expectations.
OCJ: Why didn’t you ask for Farm Bureau members’ opinions before making a deal?
Jack: Farm Bureau has a decision-making system that has served us well for 91 years. In our representative form of governance, members elect county delegates who in turn elect state trustees. The 26 farmers who are OFBF’s trustees are empowered to make decisions on behalf of the organization, especially in time-sensitive situations.
In this case, the trustees gave me a set of guiding principles to follow in discussions with the governor and HSUS. Those principles were to protect the authority of the Care Board, to preserve unity among farm organizations, to ensure a positive business climate for farmers, to retain bipartisan political support for agriculture’s agenda, and to put farmers and consumers first while discussing humane treatment of animals. These principles, and the OFBF policy book, guided my actions. I also relied on the counsel of OFBF board members who engaged regularly and frequently throughout the process.
OCJ: How could you even talk to our sworn enemies?
Jack: Like you, I was ready for war; a bloody battle of farmers defending their livelihoods against the powerful animal rights machine. We were preparing to win, and I believed in my heart we could. But with the fate of Ohio’s $90 billion ag industry at stake, and the governor calling to say there might be an alternative to a win-or-die-trying battle, we had to listen. We were obliged to consider what the risks were to Ohio farmers and how to best manage those risks.
If HSUS was on the ballot this year, the campaign could have cost farmers their reputation. We faced an onslaught of ugly animal abuse commercials. Thirty years of reputation building would vanish in the span of a 30-second television ad. Never mind that the ads are misleading, they’re proven effective. We would have been left vulnerable to future challenges too, not just on livestock housing, but a host of other politically charged issues. Would a victory at the ballot be worth these immeasurable costs?
We also faced spending up to $15 million on the campaign. And if we had won, we would likely have to spend the same or more for years to come. HSUS is rich and as committed as we are.
Another consideration was your farm organizations’ limited resources. A ballot fight is a full time job. There would be no time to devote to energy legislation, the farm bill, the state budget or hundreds of other issues farmers expect their organizations to address.
These are just the costs of winning. But what if we’d lost? Livestock producers would have been subject to rigid, rapid changes in production practices that would be unmanageable, so some would simply move to a non-ballot initiative state, taking with them our livestock infrastructure and along with it the corn and soybean market. The idea of letting HSUS have any say whatsoever in farm production practices is distasteful. But under the agreement, HSUS isn’t in charge. The Care Board will decide, not just what’s best for animals, but also what’s best for farmers and consumers.
In the end, the agreement managed risks, provided some clarity for farm business planning, protected agriculture’s reputation and preserved the accomplishments we made with Issue 2.
Not for one moment do I think HSUS will go away. Their mission remains putting livestock farmers out of business. Ohio Farm Bureau’s mission remains forging a partnership between farmers and consumers. To do that we must counter the HSUS threat. The agreement means we’ll now be doing that through continuing engagement instead of a date-certain showdown. Your passion for this long-term struggle will determine our success.