Farmers and Animals Have a New Ally in the Fight Against Factory Farms

The Humane Society is helping states with big agricultural industries reform practices to improve animal welfare.

A turkey looks around its enclosure at Seven Acres Farm in North Reading, Mass. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

If you want to get to the bottom of tough farming issues like pollution, animal welfare, and legislation, ask an actual farmer.

That philosophy is at the heart of the Humane Society of the United States' new strategy to help farmers who raise chickens, pigs, cattle, and other animals to transition out of intensive animal confinement operations, also known as factory farming. 

The animal welfare group has launched agriculture advisory councils, led by farmers whose practices reflect the group’s philosophy of raising animals with care, in agriculture-heavy states such as Nebraska, Colorado, Ohio, and most recently, Iowa. Once assembled, the councils then provide HSUS with information on state-specific farming issues and offer information to other local producers thinking about how to fix factory farms.

The councils are not a membership organization but have a role similar to a board of directors, tasked with informing a larger organization.

HSUS has been slow to roll out the concept of state-specific ag councils. The first was launched in October 2011 in Nebraska, followed by Colorado in May 2012.

“We had Nebraska and Colorado, and then we paused,” says Joe Maxwell, vice president of outreach and engagement. “It’s a new concept. We wanted to know how it was working. How did farmers feel? Was it worth the investment? Does it work?”

Apparently, the answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. In April, HSUS announced the creation of an agriculture council in Ohio, followed by another in Iowa a few weeks ago. It won’t be the last.

Next in line is North Carolina, likely followed by councils in New England and Indiana.

“Over the next 18 months to two years, we’ll probably launch one a month, and by the end of the two-year period, we’ll probably have 25,” says Maxwell.

Colorado rancher and HSUS ag council member Mike Callicrate says he’ll take all the help he can get.

“If you want policy to favor family agriculture, you need to find an ally. HSUS offers us farmers a bigger voice,” Callicrate says.

That benefit isn't simply a political tool to attack the current industrial agriculture model; for the Colorado rancher, it's a cutting-edge way of getting people to buy food that was raised humanely.

“We’re happy to make industrial ag less relevant, but this is about providing a much needed solution to the damage the industrial model has caused,” Callicrate said.

The modern farmer hasn't always viewed HSUS as a friend. A few years ago, the group was in a bitter battle with United Egg Producers over the use of battery cages used to house egg-laying hens. Today the groups work together to pass legislation.

News of new HSUS councils has prompted sharp responses from conventional agricultural groups.

Emily Meredith, spokesperson for Animal Agriculture Alliance, told Drovers Cattle Network that HSUS efforts are “a front to appear engaged” and that the group “certainly has ample resources to waste on initiatives like their animal welfare coalitions.”

Meredith later clarified the statement for TakePart.

“The rationale behind my strong statement is that every protein-specific group from the Pork Board to the National Cattlemen’s Association have spent a lot of money and resources to come up with guidelines for animal care. What HSUS is doing is duplicative,” she says. “Their agenda is to eliminate consumer choice and encourage Americans to give up meat, milk, and eggs.”

The Humane Society's Maxwell says that stance is false.

“I’m a fourth-generation pig farmer in Missouri. I’m not working this hard every day to make sure I put myself out of business,” he says. “The fact is, there was no one out there promoting this type of agriculture anymore.”

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