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By Staff | Aug 27, 2010

What was to be a clever, voter-sanctioned effort to fence out the animals-are-people crowd in Ohio last year is, depending on your perspective – either a progressive way for farm and animal rights groups to work together toward humane livestock production, or a total sell-out of livestock producers by Big Ag to the Humane Society of the U.S.

How did the free range chicken folks get the upper beak on the Ohio Farm Bureau and its friends in the state’s pork, cattle, dairy, poultry, corn and soybean groups?

Brains, said one in-state observer with no dog, chicken, hog, veal calf, turkey, laying hen or cow in the fight.

The showdown began a year ago when the Ohio Farm Bureau led a ballot initiative for voters to create a 13-member Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.

The effort was seen as a pre-emptive move by Ohio ag groups to “take care of ourselves” while boxing in animal rightists, mostly the Humane Society of the United States, which had targeted the state after successful animal welfare campaigns in California, Arizona and Florida.

Backers of the campaign, labeled Initiative 2, ponied up $4 million to sell it; $2.7 million came from national and state livestock and farm groups.

On Nov. 3, 2009, Initiative 2 passed by a slam-dunk 64-37 percent. But, as was noted in this space 10 days later, it had been shoved through “without much discussion over the new panel’s authority, accountability, constitutionality or whether Big Ag’s big hand in on the state’s livestock tiller is the right one for all Ohio.

Few in the animal rights movement thought so and just three months later HSUS was back with a new ballot idea to ensure the new livestock board would adopt “certain minimum standards that will prevent the cruel and inhumane treatment of farm animals, enhance food safety, protect the environment and strengthen Ohio family farms.”

The key target of these proposed rules was the “extreme confinement” of animals – meaning sow gestation crates, veal crates and caged laying hens. Also, HSUS wanted rules to keep injured “downer” cows from the food chain and the end of “inhumane methods of euthanasia for sick and injured animals.”

In short, all the sweat, cash and politicking Big Ag has used to keep the animal rights dogs collared in Ohio were headed for naught because the HSUS nimbly stepped around ag’s narrow base with threat to go back to the voters.

The Big Boys were not happy. According to a Feb. 2 story in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, a spokesman of the Ohio Farm Bureau called the HSUS tactic another “step in what we believe an extremist movement to remove meat, milk and eggs from our plates.”

Maybe, but by spring the Big Boys were in secret negotiations with the “extremists” at the behest of Gov. Ted Strickland to avoid another ballot fight where Ohio farmers risked voters shoving HSUS’ ideas right up their barn doors.

A deal was struck in June that, among other things, barred construction of new egg operations that use cages, phased out sow crates over 15 years and eliminated veal crates by 2017.

What started out as a clear, wallop-em win for Big Ag quickly turned into a “change-is-coming” capitulation when the aggies, faced with a ballot initiative they didn’t control, were forced to count their friends and found that people – not pigs or hens or veal calves – vote.

Two big lessons emerge from this scrap. First, farmers need to be careful when picking fights over animal agriculture. The animal rights folks ain’t chickens; they fight.

And, second, maybe farmers need to be even more careful in picking their friends.

Guebert is a syndicated columnist from Delavan, Ill. Reach him by e-mail at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.

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