Ag must unite to fight

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


Washington farm organizations and their members will have to bring all of their resources to the fight if they expect to defeat a proposed ballot initiative that would restrict the cages used for egg-laying hens.

The initiative would require egg producers to give hens enough room to turn around and extend their wings. Any eggs sold in the state would have to be produced in facilities meeting that standard. It has been proposed by two national animal-rights organizations, the Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary. Their supporters are busy now rounding up signatures from 241,153 registered voters to get the measure on November's ballot.

It is a serious effort, and presents Washington farmers and ranchers with a clear and present danger.

Supporters of the initiative are well-funded. The Humane Society of the United States is a $130 million a year operation with a sophisticated fundraising apparatus. According to IRS documents, it spent $3.7 million on campaigns and lobbying in 2009 alone. Supporters of a similar, though much broader, effort in California in 2008 were able to raise $10.6 million.

Supporters of the initiative will focus their well-planned media campaign on Washington's urban areas, particularly the Seattle metroplex. Voters there are far removed from areas where large-scale production agriculture is common, and are less likely to have any first-hand experience with animal husbandry practices. They also represent an electoral majority whose weight always sways statewide elections.

They will use a host of techniques to paint current production techniques as being cruel, unethical and unhealthy. They will hold up one or two producers found guilty of outrageous violations that offend every honest farmer as exemplifying the entire industry.

At the same time, the initiative's main sponsors will mask their true objective -- the elimination of animal agriculture. Farm Sanctuary opposes the slaughter, consumption and "commodification" of farm animals. "Farm Sanctuary has never and will never support so-called 'humane' meat. We maintain that the words 'humane' and 'slaughter' are mutually exclusive," according to the group's website.

If successful, they will bide their time and unleash an assault on some other segment of the livestock industry.

There are those within the farm community who have already said that they cannot hope to compete with the multimedia campaign that will be waged against them. The farm community must be all in with the resources that can be brought to the campaign, or it will be all out in its defeat.

There are others who may say that this is not their fight because they don't produce eggs or keep livestock. That's shortsighted. Every farmer is at risk as long as 51 percent of the voters, lacking even the basic understanding of the real issues involved, can ban legitimate and sound farming practices on the basis of a 30-second TV commercial.

In this campaign, agriculture must put up a united front, and speak with one voice.

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