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Proposed Sonoma County ballot initiative aims to eliminate ‘factory farms’

A coalition of animal welfare activists, animal sanctuaries and others are collecting signatures to put a resolution on the November ballot called the Prohibition on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.



January 12, 2024

Even as Sonoma County’s poultry producers scramble to survive a cascading outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu, their eyes are trained on a ballot initiative that could prove equally calamitous for their industry.

A coalition of animal welfare activists, animal sanctuaries, antitoxin advocates and a handful of small poultry farms is collecting signatures to put a resolution on the November ballot called the Prohibition on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.

Their effort is finding some traction. According to Samantha Faye, a Coalition to End Factory Farming spokesperson, they have collected more than 26,000 signatures. They need 19,746 to qualify for the ballot, but want to make sure they can prevail if a large number of names are disqualified by the county registrar.

“When we talk to voters they are shocked to hear that there are farms confining hundreds of thousands of animals, many in terrible condition, right in their own county,” Faye said in an email. “Small family farms cannot compete with these industrial farms because factory farms externalize their costs onto animals, society, and the environment.

“This ordinance will help restore the local diverse agriculture that existed in Sonoma County before the factory farms moved in.”

If the county ballot measure were to pass, companies would have three years to come into compliance before getting hit with daily fines.

At the heart of the debate is what qualifies as a factory farm.

Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, rejects the term outright.

“There is no definition, it’s in the eye of the beholder,” Ghirardelli said. “It doesn’t matter what size. I may know that farmer, that family, and how they do it, and I might not call them a factory farm. This is a step toward eliminating agriculture. To me, it’s a scare tactic.”

Faye and her fellow activists disagree. They say the proposed ordinance uses numbers outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Their resolution includes both medium- and large-sized operations. To cite a few examples, it would apply to facilities with more than 200 dairy cattle, 150 horses, 3,000 sheep or 16,500 turkeys if they are discharging directly into local water sources. The size of a permitted chicken farm would depend on whether it employs a liquid manure system (9,000 birds max) or a nonliquid system (25,000 for laying hens, 37,500 for broiler birds).

The coalition says more than a dozen Sonoma County livestock operations would be affected. They would seem to include most of the poultry farms that recently reported incidences of avian flu, and almost certainly Sunrise Farms and Reichardt Duck Farm — both of which have been the targets of incursions by the Berkeley-based animal welfare group Direct Action Everywhere.

Those sites meet the classic definition of concentrated animal feeding operations, Faye insisted.

“Both of these facilities actually confine many more animals than Harris Ranch does, but because they are kept almost entirely indoors and in the unincorporated areas of the county, they are not as noticeable to the public,” she wrote, comparing Sunrise and Reichardt to the sprawling cattle lot that fouls the air as you drive along I-5 near Coalinga.

If the proposed initiative qualifies for the ballot, it is likely to spark one of the most high-profile bouts over a Sonoma County ballot measure in many years.

Farming groups in the county and across the state already are ramping up their organizing efforts, preparing to face off against a political threat they see as existential to their industry.

Of the county’s roughly four dozen dairies, 97% would be affected by the ballot measure if it passes, according to Ghirardelli, the Farm Bureau executive director.

Doug Beretta, a third-generation dairy farmer and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau president, is concerned his organic dairy west of Santa Rosa will fall under the prohibition.

“The way I look at it is our dairy is a CAFO, a medium-sized CAFO,” he said. “We house 280 milk cows in a free-stall barn in the winter time. We house them for a variety of reasons — water quality reasons, cow-comfort reasons, but also so we don’t have manure running off in the winter time.”

But that arrangement, plus the supplemental feed — hay — he brings in for his herd would likely qualify his dairy as a factory farm under the measure.

The potential fallout for animal agriculture has put producers across the state on notice of the incipient ballot measure, he said.

“If it passes here in Sonoma County it will pass throughout” California, Beretta said in an interview late last year with The Press Democrat Editorial Board.

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


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