Beef on the ballot
At least one local rancher is worried a state initiative regulating the treatment of farm animals and set to appear before voters this November could add another cost and burdensome regulation to his operation.
Others think the measure could generate a shift in consumer tastes, driving more people to chose small farms over agriculture giants.
The Treatment of Farm Animals Statute would require calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs enough space to fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up and turn around. Penalties include fines of up to $1,000 or 180 days of jail time.
Video footage of abused downer cows at a Southern California slaughterhouse and a subsequent meat recall earlier this year fueled the measure, which is supported by animal rights groups that include the Humane Society.
But agricultural groups such as the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association say it would put California’s egg industry out of business and cost the state’s economy $615 million.
There is no confined animal operation in Nevada County, according to county Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Pylman. Most of the county’s agriculture is in small operations compared with those in the Central Valley.
“They’re in pastures or corrals,” Pylman said.
Locally, demand already has grown for fresh food produced closer to home, including for the prize-winning, rainbow-hued eggs Janey Powers raises on her Hopeful Hill Ranch west of Nevada City.
She sells egg by subscription and has a waiting list.
As an animal lover, Powers said she is torn by the initiative.
“It is hard on chickens to be raised in small cages,” she said. On the other hand, a large number of chickens in one space can create a dangerous situation when birds begin pecking at one another.
“Giving them a lot of room is almost as bad. It’s kind of a two-edged sword,” she said.
Even though his cows graze on wild grasses rather than in a feed lot, Rancher Jim Gates of Nevada County Free Range Beef thinks the initiative, if it passes, could jeopardize the cattle industry by opening the door for more regulations.
His family has been running cows since they came to Nevada County by wagon train in 1871.
“Now we have people who don’t know anything about raising cattle, and they’re going to tell me how to run my operation,” Gates said. “It’s just a way to drive people out of business.”
Already burdened with increasing regulations from the state water board and a looming lawsuit with a local developer, Gates is fed up.
“Every time there’s government regulation it adds to the cost of beef we produce here. If this land isn’t agriculture, it’s going to be houses,” Gates said.
Shining a light
Changing the rules for large agricultural businesses wouldn’t be financially viable for them, but there aren’t enough small egg producers to supply the state’s hunger for omelets, souffles and Egg McMuffins, Powers said.
Between 90 and 95 percent of California egg production is in modern cage housing systems, according to Pacific Egg and Poultry Association. Cages protect birds from the threat of cannibalism, extreme weather conditions and diseases such as exotic Newcastle disease and avian influenza,
But the Humane Society and other animal right groups argue that putting two hens in a cage with floor space the size of a sheet of letter paper is animal cruelty.
Even if the measure doesn’t pass, it will raise people’s awareness, Powers said.
“It shines the light on the problem and stimulates people to think of ways to raise chickens humanely,” Powers said.
People want to know where their food comes from and will happily pay more for that assurance, said Janet Brisson, who sells eggs for more than $7 a dozen from her business, Country Rubes Farm.
“People are paying a lot of money for our eggs,” said Brisson, who sells 12 to 20 dozen through BriarPatch Co-op in Grass Valley each week. She raised her prices this year, because the cost of organic corn feed and fuel was eating into her profits.
Brisson riding a surge in interest in locally produced food, including growers markets, community supported agriculture programs, fresh local produce in area markets and the development of a new nonprofit group, Nevada County Grown.
BriarPatch Co-op has embarked on a two-week challenge to the community to eat 80 percent of their diet in food from local and regional produced sources.
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4231.
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