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Measure seeking to limit size of Sonoma County livestock and poultry farms qualifies for ballot

Many of the county’s best known dairy- and chicken-raising families, and the agricultural alliances that support them, describe the initiative as an existential threat to their livelihoods.



March 27, 2024, 6:27PM

A local initiative that would limit the size of livestock and poultry farms in Sonoma County has qualified for the ballot. It is expected to be a hot-button issue, and perhaps a major generator of political contributions over the next seven months.

The Coalition to End Factory Farming, a collection of animal welfare advocates and small producers, turned in petitions bearing 37,183 signatures to the office of Deva Proto, Sonoma County’s clerk and registrar of voters, earlier this month.

Supporters of the initiative needed 19,746 total verified signatures to qualify for the ballot — or, alternatively, 652 verified signatures drawn from a sample size of 1,115 names. Using the second rubric, Proto and her staff verified 902 names, county election specialist Will Stephenson wrote on Proto’s behalf in a clerk’s certificate.

The registrar will now deliver the initiative to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, which will decide when the initiative goes in front of voters. Most likely, it will be November’s general election.

At issue in the measure is just what constitutes a factory farm. Campaigners behind the initiative allege that many of the county’s largest livestock and poultry operations fit that designation.

“Since the 1950s, industrial poultry (operations) have been able to outcompete local family farms by using cheap transport and supply chains, minimal amounts of poorly paid labor, and by externalizing environmental costs,” Roy Smith, described as a local farmer, said in a news release circulated by the Coalition to End Factory Farming. “Cheap food has come at the cost of our local economy and rural landscape. The first step in rebuilding our food system, and making family farms viable again, is to level the playing field.”

Many of the county’s best known dairy- and chicken-raising families, and the agricultural alliances that support them, describe the initiative as an existential threat to their livelihoods.

“We are not surprised that the ballot initiative qualified, given the lies and misinformation that was touted to collect signatures,” Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, told The Press Democrat. “We’ve had several folks tell us that they signed a petition to save Sonoma County farmers and we’ve had to explain that their signature supported just the opposite.”

The initiative would phase out medium- and large-sized “concentrated agricultural feeding operations,” or CAFOs, in Sonoma County. The definition of a CAFO includes animals stabled or confined for 45 days or more in any 12-month period. The size of the farms that stand to be out of compliance would vary by animal and according to how they discharge manure.

Examples include farms with 700 or more dairy cattle, or 200+ dairy cattle if the facilities discharge manure directly into surface water; and 55,000 or more turkeys, or 16,500+ turkeys if there is direct discharge into surface water. The calculation for chickens is more complex, with the lower threshold ranging from 9,000 to 125,000 depending on how waste is disposed of.

The organizers note that the definitions of CAFOs used in the ballot initiative come directly from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Local farmers insist they are misleading, and that none of Sonoma County’s dairies or egg farms are true factory farms.

According to organizers, Sonoma County will be the first in the nation to vote on a CAFO ban.

Of the 902 signatures that were not approved, 100 were from nonregistered voters. In 67 cases, the signer used a different address. In 28 instances, the signature didn’t match that found in voter registration documents. Eleven of those who signed the petition had registered too late, among other factors.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On X (Twitter) @Skinny_Post.


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