An agreement in Nebraska will avoid a legislative battle over livestock treatment and, instead, create a marketing program for food from animals raised under certain conditions.
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said his organization and the Humane Society of the United States agreed to confer on livestock issues, reward livestock owners whose practices meet standards acceptable to both groups, and avoid costly and divisive ballot initiative campaigns. To administer the voluntary marketing program, the deal will create the Nebraska Agriculture Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
The Nebraska VMA had not formed a position on the agreement at press time in November.
Past campaigns by the Humane Society have secured legal changes and promises of increased regulation in states such as California and Ohio through citizen ballot initiatives and negotiations with agricultural and governmental groups. The Humane Society and the United Egg Producers also agreed in July 2011 to jointly pursue federal legislation that would set minimum housing standards for egg-laying hens.
Animal housing was similarly at issue in the Nebraska negotiations, Hansen said, noting that Humane Society officials had expressed concerns with the use of veal calf crates, sow gestation crates, and battery cages for chickens as well as the practice of docking dairy cow tails. He also noted that the state was a battleground over farming practices because of its meat production.
In 2010, Nebraska had about 6.2 million cattle, 3.2 million pigs, and 74,000 sheep, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 2007 Census of Agriculture also indicates the state had about 10.5 million laying hens, 2.2 million pullets, and 773,000 broilers. At the time of the census, farmers and ranchers had about $8.7 billion worth of livestock, poultry, and animal products, the fifth highest in the country.
The Humane Society chose the Nebraska Agriculture Council's first members with input from the farmers union, Hansen said. Members, who will also establish the organization structure and add more members, consist of a cattle producer, a representative from a farming cooperative organization, a Nebraska Farmers Union board member, and a dairy producer, according to the Humane Society.
"Anytime we create a new market, put more money in (a livestock producer's) pocket, reduce unfair and unreasonable regulation on them, improve the quality of their life, it's a good thing."
A coalition of Nebraska agricultural trade organizations, We Support Agriculture, in a statement expressed shock and disappointment that the Nebraska Farmers Union would align itself with the Humane Society, which the union had accused of trying to reduce consumption of products from animals. Pete McClymont, president of We Support Agriculture and vice president of legislative affairs for the Nebraska Cattlemen, said We Support Agriculture would never conduct business with an organization that, on its website, promotes a philosophy of reducing animal product consumption, refining diets to avoid products from animals raised in some production systems, and replacing animal products with plant-based foods.
McClymont said the marketing agreement will allow animal producers who meet certain specifications to sell their products in stores such as Open Harvest, a cooperative grocery in Lincoln, Neb., where the deal was announced.
He did not object to the marketing portion of the agreement, which, he said, involves sellers and buyers agreeing to particular terms. But, he said, We Support Agriculture members are disappointed that the deal will create an animal care standards board, which they see as unneeded. He noted that the state's agriculture producers have worked with veterinarians, university extension agents, and quality assurance programs, and the state has been assertive in enacting anti-cruelty statutes.
"We feel that to have somebody come into this state with the agenda to create a care board is something we would never have interest in," McClymont said.
Joe Maxwell, director of rural development and outreach for the Humane Society and a hog farmer from Missouri, said the initiative could change the marketplace, but he said it was too early to know how much time or participation would be needed to determine whether the campaign is successful.
Hansen hopes the agreement will provide a model that could be used elsewhere to reduce open conflict between livestock owners and the HSUS as well as benefit livestock owners in Nebraska.
"Anytime we create a new market, put more money in their pocket, reduce unfair and unreasonable regulation on them, improve the quality of their life, it's a good thing," he said.