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When it comes to livestock, Rollin enjoys cred both with the independents and with the industry. “He has some attitude, but he’s a great person, and I respect him well,” says Ivan Steinke, executive director of the Colorado Pork Producers Council. “He’s an ethicist—and when I say ‘ethicist,’ he doesn’t dis. He just believes there’s proper procedures and ethics in production agriculture, and whether you’re a cow, calf or dairy man, or hog operator or poultry guy, we have the responsibility to do it in a certain way. [Bernie and I] don’t agree on 100 percent of the issues, but we can debate them.”
Ask Rollin whose side he’s on, and the response is easy: “I’m in it for the animals.”
He traces his approach back to an ancient, biblical social contract of animal husbandry, suggesting that those who are good to animals will have animals that are productive for them. In Rollins’ view, science and technology have no place in the discussion.
“The example I always use is: Just because I own my own motorcycle doesn’t mean I can ride on the sidewalk at 100 mph or throw wheelies on Main Street. The line we hear all the time is, ‘I own those animals; I can do whatever I goddamn please.’ That’s not true—particularly not now.”
Societal mores are changing, Rollin notes, and in response, some food corporations are beginning to stipulate that livestock be raised a certain way. Smithfield, a hog packer, has a long-term plan to phase out gestation crates on all its corporate-owned and subcontractor-operated farms. Burger King and Wal-Mart are buying more cage-free eggs.
“Life is like an ox cart that’s going to move along. You can stop when it stops and drink when it drinks. Or you can be dragged and beaten and be bloody,” Rollin sums up. “You can do this on your own or get legislated by people who don’t necessarily understand the issues.”
With Rollin playing referee, Colorado’s pork producers won a few concessions: 10 years to phase out the pig crates, for one, and a loophole that allows sows to stay semi-crated until “confirmed” pregnant, which can take a month. The Humane Society also agreed not to push the battery-cage issue, leaving the egg industry unaffected.
For now, anyway.
California agribusiness may have thought it had seen the last of the activists for a while after the ’08 vote. Yet the group returned to the state capitol last year, pushing a ban on another industrial practice it finds abhorrent. This time, the dairy industry was the target.
And the politicking was successful. In October, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law banning “tail docking,” the amputation of a milk cow’s tail, which is commonly performed without anesthetic. Some dairymen have long believed tail docking improves hygiene, udder health and the quality of the milk produced, though scientific research has not borne out those theories and the American Veterinary Medical Association opposes the practice.
Meanwhile, after the Humane Society told Michigan’s agriculture industry last summer that it wanted changes there, the large-scale egg and pork producers took a page out of Ohio’s playbook and attempted to put a livestock-standards board in place. But state legislators wouldn’t greenlight it.
So the industry switched strategies and took a cue from Colorado, brokering a phase-out of crates and cages.
Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, says his members are “ecstatic, very upbeat, very happy, dead-confident they did the right thing.”
Byrum adds, “The irony is if [the anti-confinement ballot measure] passes in Ohio, those farmers will have to comply with the provisions quicker than we will here in Michigan.”
Will Ohio be the game changer?
The industry certainly hopes so. One good sign, says Joe Cornely, the state’s farm bureau spokesman, is that neither gubernatorial candidate supports the Humane Society’s campaign.
But Pacelle says he’s more confident than ever. “We are pro-farmer. And we’re pro-animal. And we don’t see any incompatibility between those two positions.”
According to ag-industry vet Wes Jamison, an associate professor of communications at Palm Beach Atlantic University, the campaign will come down not to facts, but to messaging.
“Animal agriculture has either tried to argue science, or economics, or food security. They’ve done everything but the moral argument for what they do with animals. And if they can’t make the moral case, they will lose in the long run.”
Kristen Hinman is a staff writer at Riverfront Times, Village Voice Media’s St. Louis weekly. This article appeared in that paper as "Down On the Farm: The Humane Society and big agriculture slug it out over animal rights."