By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
OXFORD, Ohio — A notice in the local paper announced Bill Miller, president of the Miami Valley Farmers’ Union, had invited a representative from the Humane Society of the Unites States (HSUS) to speak at the group’s program, and the public was invited.
An e-mail from local Farm Bureau member Gail Lierer urged “as many of us that can attend should go to this and stand up for what we just fought for (the Ohio Livestock Board).” There were strong feelings in the room that night, but everyone was polite.
Angela Huffman, HSUS liaison rural development and outreach, said it is reaching out to sustainable family farmers to share their goal of ending factory farming, and HSUS representatives are working to connect those farmers to its membership base, who are looking for animal welfare friendly product on the marketplace.
“We are forming a system of state agriculture councils,” Huffman said. “Those consist of dedicated farmers who share our principles. The council members advise our state directors on policy issues, help farmers who want to transition to more humane practices and help us expand the market for humane products.”
In answer to questions, she said HSUS is not trying to get people to become vegan or vegetarian.
“We recognize that it is more expensive to treat animals better, and to get to a more sustainable system people would need to eat less meat,” Huffman said. “With our humane eating policy, we advocate for the three Rs: reduce, replace and refine” – that is, reducing the consumption of meat and other animal-based goods by replacing them with plant-based foods, and also refining the diet by sourcing animal products from more humane farms, she explained.
An HSUS representative had also spoken at the Ohio Farmers Union (OFU) summer picnic. The organization wants farmers to treat animals better by eliminating these four things: battery cages for egg laying hens, gestation crates for sows, veal crates and what it terms needless tail docking of dairy cattle.
Tim Hesselbrock, president of the Butler County Farm Bureau and an OFU member, was concerned about imports.
“If they want to limit what we can do, then what comes into this country in the way of product, it should be the same across the board,” he said. “That is normally what hurts the American farmer worse than anything, the imports of items that people can bring into this country much cheaper because they don’t have the all of the restrictions that we have.”
Huffman replied, “There is not an easy answer to that, but we do have an international arm, the Humane Society International, which is working on these same factory farming issues abroad. Ending intensive confinement abroad as well as here would help level the playing field.
“Also, through our agriculture councils and our rural outreach, we hope to educate consumers so that they will look for the best products, so they’ll ask where the food came from, and then hopefully expand the market for those more humane products.”
OFU President Roger Wise said it has been in discussion with HSUS, but OFU’s position regarding that organization is undecided.
“We had heard a lot of negative things in the media and press, things put out by a lot of farm organizations and other groups, and we hadn’t talked to them face to face,” Wise said. “It was a pretty good discussion (last summer) and we found that some of the things we had heard weren’t exactly accurate.
“We acknowledged early on that there were many things that our policies didn’t agree with, but we found that there were some that they did: sustainable agriculture, family farms, independent producers, value-added products and those types of things.”
Some OFU members are in favor of further discussion with HSUS, while others think the longer OFU talks with HSUS “the more poisoned we become,” Wise said.
“We have a lot of diverse opinions within our own organization and that’s why we’re going fairly slowly and in a manner that can keep our organization intact,” he explained.
“If we do develop some kind of relationship, whatever that might be, we’re hopeful it will increase our membership.”
Completely on the other side of the fence, Bill and Bev Roe, owners of Pedro’s Angus farm, said in an e-mail sent the next day they do not believe HSUS is a friend to farmers.
Bev thought too many regulations would put livestock farmers out of business, and that regulations are costly to change.
Bill added, “Right now, HSUS wants pork producers to remodel their barns to change from gestation crates to group housing. This is occurring while feed prices have doubled and hogs are selling so cheap they can’t pay their bills, let alone provide for their families.”
Farmers are already changing their husbandry methods to meet the demands of different consumers, and it is better to do it that way than with regulations, Bev said. She does not believe “big” farmers” put “little” farmers out of business.
“I believe the same thing happened to farmers as to the small hardware stores,” she said. “Consumers like me shopped at Walmart for lower prices and convenience. You and I closed the local hardware store. And, you and I are causing the boon in farmers’ markets, buying local, organic and grass-fed and so forth.
“I believe HSUS is wearing a mask at farmers’ meetings,” she said.
Bill said, “The HSUS vision was not inspired by livestock farmers. It was inspired by people who think pets and farm animals should be treated like people.”
Hesselbrock agreed. “An animal has to be comfortable or it won’t produce,” he said. “The problem I have is so many people confuse livestock with pets. It is an animal, and you care for it, but it is an animal that has a productive life – it provides food for people.”