For a long time, the ag industry didn’t seem to see a way to slap away the Humane Society’s whip hand. But within the past year, through social media, influence peddling and, most recently, preemptive political maneuvering, farmers big and small have begun to circle the wagons to protect their livelihood.

In Ohio last year, for instance, commodity groups organized to pass a ballot measure instituting a politically appointed board with regulatory authority over all farm-animal-welfare issues. The tactic was a direct response to the Humane Society’s announcement that it intended to make Ohio its next battleground.

This year, lawmakers in at least nine other states are considering adopting similar boards.

It won’t be possible for the Humane Society to win over the entire nation via its current tactic because 26 U.S. states don’t permit ballot initiatives. As the nonprofit continues to strategize, Pacelle is tight-lipped on details. “It’s like chess,” he says. “You have to see what the other guy does before you make your move.”

As the battle goes on, the question remains: Who should decide what we put on our plates? Politicians? The 2 million farmers and ranchers who produce the food? Or the 307 million Americans who buy it?

* * *

Frankie Hall figures 1999 marked the first time he and Pacelle came to the table about legislation to target confinement hog farming. As the Florida Farm Bureau’s director of agriculture policy tells it, Pacelle wanted help passing a law at the state capitol. If that were to fail, Hall recalls the Humane Society’s then-chief lobbyist explaining, the group would seek a vote of the people.

“They got body-slammed in the legislature,” Hall recounts. “But they were very patient. They knew exactly what they were going to do, one way or another. Wayne is sharp as a tack—that’s one thing about him. He ain’t no dummy.”

The Humane Society was mobilizing to turn back an industrial tide that had been rising for more than 60 years. Ever since World War II, agriculture in the U.S. had been decreasingly diversified and increasingly consolidated into ever-larger corporations.

As Singer writes in Animal Liberation, “agriculture” had turned into “agribusiness.”

Old-school animal husbandry gradually gave way to higher-tech operations. Livestock that previously foraged for feed were warehoused inside concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs, where food delivery was mechanized and regulated (and manure amassed through the floor).

The system was efficient in more ways than one. It allowed for few variables, lowering costs and virtually guaranteeing that every porterhouse on every American plate could be counted upon to look and taste pretty much the same.

But to make the animals as productive as possible in the modern environment, a few twists of nature were necessary. For one, livestock had to be bred more quickly and slaughtered sooner. Traits such as aggressiveness had to be selectively bred out so animals would reside calmly in a cage or crate or on a paved feedlot.

It’s a system that was initially trumpeted for democratizing what previously had been a luxury—and then largely ignored.

Only relatively recently have the perceived horrors of the “factory farm” begun to percolate through popular parlance. Best-selling reportage such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, written by Michael Pollan, not to mention the 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary Food Inc.—all cast livestock confinement in a negative light and sounded alarm bells for human health by showing how CAFOs and the antibiotic-laced diets required to keep livestock healthy in crowded environments may be contributing to the spread of virulent new superbugs.

In the view of the Humane Society, a nation that had lost touch with its food supply was primed for an intervention.

As the stripped-down wording of the public referenda demonstrate, the nonprofit’s current agenda is straightforward: Animals are entitled to a place to “stand up, lie down and turn around freely and fully extend all limbs.”

Florida made for an attractive guinea pig.

Ranking 33rd in hog production, the state lacked an obvious deep-pocketed opponent for the Humane Society’s “End Factory Farming” campaign. Moreover, its population centers are stacked predominantly on the urban coasts, far from farmlands.

On Nov. 5, 2002, a state constitutional amendment passed with 55 percent of the vote, banning crates for pregnant sows. (The apparatus doesn’t permit the occupant to turn more than its head.)

According to the farm bureau’s Hall, the new law only affected one farm and 3,000 hogs.

Four years later, that farmer had abandoned the pork trade for the peanut business. The Campaign for Arizona Farmers and Ranchers reckoned he was the perfect spokesman for its “Hogwash!” commercials opposing Proposition 204, the Humane Society’s second attempted ballot measure.

This time, the animal-welfare group sought to criminalize crates for pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal. (The latter, prized for their pale white flesh, typically are tethered at the neck to fencing that prevents them from acquiring any red muscle mass.) For its TV ads, the Humane Society tapped no less a lightning rod than Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, often described as “the toughest sheriff in America.”

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