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Column: Post election, pigs, and pink underwear

While the nation’s voters on Nov. 7 trounced troubled Republicans and yielded Democrat control to the U.S. House and Senate, the immediate question on the minds of the nation’s farmers and ranchers was the impact of the party shift on the upcoming 2007 farm bill deliberations.

In Arizona another election issue felled the immediate farm bill concern. The passage of an animal activists-supported voter proposition caused an Election Day crack to form across the foundation of Arizona’s livestock industry.

Voters approved Proposition 204, the Humane Treatment of Farm Animals Act, by a 61.8 to 38.2 margin. Passage has placed Arizona’s single large hog operation in a pickle: increase the size of sow gestation stalls or face criminal action – six years in prison and a $20,000 fine. The real issue was not gestation crates on one farm. It was a statement about how farmers in Arizona and across the nation raise livestock.

The Election Day decision knocking of the $9.2 billion Arizona agriculture industry was not the fault of voters. Very few of them realized that current sized gestation stalls are the industry standard. Current stall use and size are backed by the American Veterinary Medical Association and sound science developed over the decades by university-based research on livestock production practices.

The passage of Prop 204 belongs squarely on the shoulders of the national animal activist groups Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the United States, organizations that brought a national agenda to the Grand Canyon State. The claim – hogs raised in gestation crates are treated inhumanely.

Their real mission was promoting an anti-meat, pro-vegetarian agenda. The groups’ goals: to make Arizona the second notch on the belt toward the elimination of animal agriculture production in the United States.

The groups were successful in a similar gestation stall issue several years ago on the Florida ballot. The state’s two lone hog farms are no longer lonely – just out of business.

In Arizona, anti-meat groups gained the endorsement of high profile Maricopa County (Phoenix area) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is know for his flamboyant style of talking tough, dressing prisoners in pink underwear and bunking inmates in tents in 100-plus degree heat. Placing the colorful and controversial Arpaio on board the animal activists’ train engaged voter support.

If you’re a livestock producer in the United States, beware! These groups want you out of business unless your operation allows the likes of Carl the Cow, Porkie the Pig, and Carmella the Chicken to roam free on the wide-open range while humming the tune “Kumbaya.”

To quote Farm Sanctuary from their Web site, the organization supports animals where, “They would be free to laze in the breeze, bathe in the sun, scratch at the earth and enjoy life.” That’s full of bunk and doesn’t feed the world!

Agriculture today engages global positioning satellites and cutting edge nutritional analysis to raise plants and animals. Few Americans have the grit or dedication to work on farms and ranches with clothes covered by dirt and manure, much less show off one’s callused hands. Today’s farmer represents less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.

Arizona agriculture fought Prop 204 tooth and nail. Four agriculture groups formed the Coalition for Arizona Farmers and Ranchers (CAFR), including the Arizona Pork Council, the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, the United Dairymen of Arizona and the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation. The groups’ clever theme, “Prop 204 is Hogwash,” promoted a “no” vote through print, radio, television and the public speaking circuit.

The state’s relatively small agricultural industry, compared to agriculture powerhouses like California, Texas, Iowa and Nebraska, fought its best political fight, but lacked the political whiz-bang celebrity spokespeople and bottomless moneybags to fight the superiorly funded animal rights groups. Agriculture relied on a common sense appeal to voters – Arizona farmers treat animals humanely and any talk to the contrary was hogwash. It was true but not enough.

It’s an unfair world when 10-second sound bites from celebrities decide the future of America’s oldest and proudest profession – agriculture. It’s time for agriculture to take a bolder stance and embrace the legal system to defend its operating system based on sound science, versus hogwash statements from animal activists that purely pluck at emotional heartstrings.

Since the voters spoke on Election Day, PFFJ must enlarge the gestation stalls by Dec. 31, 2012, to allow pigs with enough room to turn around, lie down and fully extend their limbs. After that date, a farmer in Iowa could raise pigs as always while the same farmer in Arizona goes to jail. Prop 204 contained similar language for Arizona veal producers. Arizona doesn’t have a single veal operation and likely won’t because of the new law.

Enlarging gestation stalls will likely place severe economic consequences on the family operated PFFJ. Knowing that agricultural producers across the nation operate under slim profit lines and compete with farmers in a world wide market, the real costs to conform could force PFFJ to “pink slip” itself and be forced to export its business to Mexico or another country.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns shared with me recently about his deep farm roots and growing up on the family dairy farm that also included about a dozen sows. He noted that current gestation stall sizes are designed to protect the pigs from turning around to keep them from using clean feed and water areas as toilets. While the Johanns family used open pens and gestation stalls for the sows, he said the stalls provided better health and security for the sows.

Agriculture has a fight on its hands. The smarter – not necessarily who is right – will win in the end. There’s even talk of the animal activists taking their cause to the new Democrat-controlled Congress.

Here’s to sleeping with both eyes open.

e-mail: [email protected]

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