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Animal rights comes to ‘America’s Provence’ and farmers are worried



06/09/2024 08:04 PM EDT


What is underway in an iconic food-producing area might soon spread elsewhere as exurban development increasingly encroaches into agricultural regions nationwide. | Terry Chea/AP


PETALUMA, California — Animal rights activists first forced their way onto Mike Weber’s chicken ranch six years ago, seeking to expose what they view as the horrors of egg production in a region known as the “American Provence” for its abundance of vineyards, dairies and organic farms.


That confrontation, which resulted in the arrest of 40 activists for trespassing, turned out to be just an initial skirmish in a battle playing out now over animal rights and farming that will soon move to the Sonoma County ballot. In November, voters will weigh in on a proposal to prohibit large poultry and livestock operations, which activists say are factory farms that pollute the environment and mistreat animals with closely packed confinement. Sonoma would be the first county in the United States to ban such facilities.


“People deserve a say over what happens in the county they live in, and people don’t want that happening here,” said Lewis Bernier, a researcher for Direct Action Everywhere, a Berkeley-based group with a history of confrontational protests that led efforts to get the measure on the ballot. The group has also collected signatures to place a similar question before Berkeley voters this fall, although it is largely symbolic since there are no commercial farms in the Bay Area college town.


In Sonoma, however, a measure pitting people who shop at farmers markets against those who supply them strikes deep in the terroir. Once-fringe beliefs about animal rights are becoming mainstream just as the nation is facing a rural economic crisis, having lost over a half a million farms since the 1980s. What is underway in an iconic food-producing area might soon spread elsewhere as exurban development increasingly encroaches into agricultural regions nationwide.


“If it can happen here,” said Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan, “it can get on the ballot anywhere.”


Supporters of Measure J would force at least two dozen Sonoma County poultry and livestock operations to either downsize or shut down within three years. Farmers say it is an effort to push a “vegan mandate” to end animal farming and that the initiative would close more farms and have spinoff economic effects, both immediately and in the future.


“At the end of the day, they want to burn down our farm and every other farm in Sonoma County,” said Weber, whose family has produced eggs in the area since 1912.


The Sonoma Aroma


Sonoma would be the first county in the U.S. to impose an outright ban on concentrated animal feeding operations, a designation used by the Environmental Protection Agency for regulating agricultural waste discharge. Activists use the phrase interchangeably with “factory farms,” to cover a range of modern poultry and livestock activities in which animals are raised and kept in dense conditions.


Sonoma is dotted with hundreds of farms, large and small, and has deep rural roots. Petaluma, where Weber’s farm is located, has long been tied to the dairy and poultry business and was once known as the “egg basket of the world.” The small city has a quintessential Americana charm. Much of Ronald Reagan’s classic 1984 campaign ad “Morning in America” was filmed in the city as was the 1973 movie “American Graffiti.”


That landscape may not have changed much, but Sonoma’s demographics have. Petaluma and nearby cities have become bedroom communities for people priced out of places closer to San Francisco and the Silicon Valley — filled with newcomers blasted for driving up home prices and ridiculed for grumbling about the odor of manure that occasionally wafts through the area, a scent known as the “Sonoma aroma.” Petaluma is a city of nearly 60,000 people, sprinkled with farm-to-table restaurants catering to foodies.


The crosscurrents that shape Sonoma today — an area where people are ready to challenge the business of farming even though their local economy remains inexorably tied to it — were on display last month when the county Board of Supervisors held a public hearing after activists gathered 37,000 signatures, more than enough to qualify Measure J for the ballot.


At the May 14 meeting, the measure’s supporters decried factory farms for cruelty, polluting the air and water with waste and for being “incubators for disease” such as bird flu. Activists sought to refute a dire local government assessment that projected widespread closures of farming activities and layoffs as a result of the measure’s passage.


“These industrial facilities harm animals,” said Cassie King, a member of Direct Action Everywhere. “They exacerbate wildfires and droughts. They are incubators for disease, like the avian flu that was mentioned, which has spread to mammals and humans. They pollute our air and water. They most impact the health of workers and people who live nearby these facilities.”


Supervisors warmly welcomed Measure J critics, who included local dairy farmers and two well-known local producers that rely on them, Clover Sonoma and Straus Family Creamery — and endorsed the warnings about the likely economic effects of the measure.


“What we’re going to do is kill farms and kill jobs,” said James Gore, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official elected to the board in 2014. “And then you’re going to push us into a place where it doesn’t affect our ability to buy and sell but it does really increase the opportunity for these lands to be transitioned into suburban, urban, or other uses.”


In the end, the supervisors agreed to put the measure on the November ballot, but unanimously adopted a joint statement of opposition to the initiative. To the farm industry, the fact that a measure regarded with such local hostility has come so far in Sonoma County is a harbinger of where this fight might go next.


Which Came First


In May 2018, several hundred people organized by Direct Action Everywhere traveled about an hour’s drive north from Berkeley to protest Weber Family Farms, which Mike owns with his brother, Scott. Some forced their way inside the chicken houses, seizing dozens of birds including about 10 they claimed were sick and dying. The group argued that their action was legal under a California law against animal abuse. “Folks, we’re about to march into a massive factory farm in the heart of darkness and hell,” declared the group’s leader, Wayne Hsiung, according to video taken at the time. “We’re gonna expose what’s happening inside and try to take some of the animals out.”


Hsiung, a lawyer and onetime candidate for mayor of Berkeley who has argued that animals should have the same rights under the Constitution as people, held follow-up protests there and at Reichardt Duck Farm, also in Petaluma. The group has tried to make their case with photos showing birds with apparently untreated sickness and injuries.


“We need to stop the most egregious cruelty that’s happening,” said Bernier. “We need to put an end to it immediately.”


Weber disputes allegations of mistreatment, noting that his products receive a “certified humane” label from Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit that says it uses veterinarians and animal scientists to set treatment standards. He said he also takes additional compliance monitoring measures for his company’s organic facilities and recycles his waste to sell as fertilizer. “I don’t know what we can do better,” he said. “The only thing I can do is to go out of business to make them happy.”


Measure J would likely have that impact. The initiative language appears to call for phasing out both large and medium-sized concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Under that interpretation, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau says at least 60 poultry and livestock enterprises would have to close.


But Bernier says that’s a misreading of the initiative and that there are no operations in the county that meet the EPA definition of a medium CAFO because of the way they manage waste. Under the coalition’s interpretation, Measure J would cover dairies in the county with 700 cows and egg producers with 82,000 birds.


The debate over exactly which facilities would be covered by Measure J is somewhat of a moot point to the local Farm Bureau. “Their ultimate goal is they want to eradicate animal farming entirely and this is a stepping stone,” said Executive Director Dayna Ghirardelli.


Weber, who was forced to kill all 550,000 chickens at his main egg-producing facility in December because of an outbreak of bird flu, bristles at accusations that he mistreats animals, which he said would not be in the interest of him or any other farmer.


“It’s in our best interest to provide the ideal environment that is stress free,” he said.


Many people today, he said, do not understand what it takes to get food from farms into supermarkets. “If voters decide they want to make it illegal to eat meat I’m not going to fight it. That’s for the voters to decide,” he said. “But they shouldn’t be making the decision based on misleading information.”


Table-to-Farm Politics


California voters statewide have shown they are receptive to animal welfare initiatives in the recent past. In 2008, voters passed Proposition 2, which prohibited certain types of cramped cages for pregnant pigs, calves raised for veal and egg-laying hens. A decade later, voters went further with Proposition 12, a so-called “foie gras ban” that required farm animals get more space and egg-producing chickens go cage-free. Both passed with more than 60 percent of the vote.


There was also a bill introduced by two Democratic state lawmakers in February 2022 that would have prohibited new CAFOs in California. That measure never made it out of committee, a result of opposition from agriculture interests. (Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is a vegan, has introduced similar legislation at the federal level.) Animal-rights activists hope that if Sonoma voters bless such regulations this fall, it could help loosen legislative resistance in Sacramento.


“If this passes, in a county that is known as an agricultural county, and prides itself on being a small farm, kind of county, then it opens up political cover to discuss the issue,” said Nickolaus Sackett, director of legislative affairs for Social Compassion in Legislation, a California-based animal-rights group. “That means the people want it and we should at least be having these conversations.”


Agriculture interests similarly recognize the potential for Measure J to be a threat beyond Sonoma County. Most of the $176,000 raised by the Family Farmers Alliance, which is sponsored by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, has come from farming organizations elsewhere in the state.


“Sonoma has grown a lot to where there’s a lot of urban folks living there,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, which is donating to the campaign. “So they need to be educated.

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