Agriculture, animal-welfare groups clash in increasingly less rural NC

cjarvis@newsobserver.comDecember 27, 2013 

— It was football season. The State Fair was underway. The smell of pork barbecue drifted from tailgates to pig pickin’s across the state.

In fact, Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, had just returned to Raleigh from a family pig pickin’ in Pender County in October when he was jarred from his weekend reverie: The Humane Society was buying graphic ads on the outsides of Raleigh city buses attacking “Big Pork” for its use of gestation crates, in which sows are restrained nearly motionless during breeding.

“The disconnect between North Carolina as a barbecue state – two days ago those ribs you put on the grill were walking around on a hog,” Wooten said. “You don’t have barbecue, you don’t have pork chops, baby-back ribs, and all the social things associated with it without having the pork industry. That’s the disconnect I think is going on in this state.”

On the other side of that disconnect, the Humane Society of the United States has been increasingly active in North Carolina over the past four years, from lobbying the state legislature to working with rural animal shelters.

“What I’m seeing is a consumer demand for humanely raised, local, sustainable food,” said Kimberley Alboum, state director of the Humane Society. “Is there a clash? Yeah, I guess at this point there is. Folks holding onto these practices of using crates, battery cages – North Carolinians just don’t want them anymore.”

The gulf between Wooten’s nostalgic view of rural North Carolina and a growing animal-welfare movement in a state increasingly removed from its agricultural past seems to be widening.

Traditional agricultural interests say they are trying to be responsible farmers in how they treat livestock and poultry, as well as how they treat the environment. Still, they see the Humane Society as public enemy No. 1, and have been girding for a fight for years.

Tom Ray, director of livestock health for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, has referred to the organization as “terrorists,” according to emails obtained by The News & Observer through a public records request.

In 2009, Ray emailed radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, calling the national Humane Society “an animal rights terrorist vegan-only organization” whose “mission is the abolition of animal agriculture in the U.S.” He repeated the terrorist label the following year in another email.

That, however, is not the official position of the department, which has a dual role of promoting agriculture and protecting animals on farms and in shelters. “Absolutely not,” Commissioner Steve Troxler said this month.

“There is tension between the agriculture industry and HSUS, and it’s because livestock producers see the organization as a threat to their livelihood,” Troxler said in an emailed response to The N&O. “Farmers are concerned that HSUS is using its sizable financial resources to try to put them out of business.”

A legislative focus

But the Humane Society and other animal-welfare advocates say their cause is no longer as fringe as it was once seen. “It’s not about anything extreme,” Alboum said. “It’s about simple, responsible care for animals.”

The hog bus ads, which can now be seen on Raleigh buses, bring public attention to a serious abuse, she said.

“It’s one of cruelest things that can happen to an animal,” she said. “We have wonderful farmers in North Carolina not using gestation crates. We’re not trying to end all farming. We’re trying to give people a choice to purchase humanely raised food.”

Alboum said different animal-welfare interest groups are beginning to work together on issues ranging from puppy-mill regulation to getting rid of shelter gas chambers to supporting sustainable farmers.

The organization just formed an Agriculture Council comprised so far of seven farmers from across the state who will work on finding markets for local, sustainable, humanely raised food, and educating the public about how to find it, as well as reaching out to restaurants and grocery stores.

Advocates have also closely watched the General Assembly. This session the Humane Society argued for a puppy-mill bill and against a farm industry-backed bill that would have made undercover investigations of farming practices illegal, except for law enforcement officers.

Other advocates have formed a political action committee – N.C. Voters for Animal Welfare – with the intention of influencing legislators and tracking their votes on animal issues.

“It’s the first time in the history of North Carolina that animals have had a voice,” said Roberta Wall of Greensboro, who learned the political ropes when she successfully pushed for 2010’s Susie’s Law, a bill that increased penalties for animal abuse.

Wall, who owns a real estate firm, said three years ago she had no idea who her representatives were in the General Assembly. Now she is organizing a political movement. The PAC has only raised a little more than $3,000 the first half of this year, but it comes in small contributions from about 100 sympathizers around the state.

“We’re teaching people how their voice makes a difference in the legislative process,” she said. “Animal welfare issues are not Republican or Democrat. They are not party issues. That’s not what this is about. We’re just mainstream people. I’m not radical.”

Wall’s and Alboum’s focus currently is on convincing the state Senate to pass the puppy mill bill next spring. The House approved it earlier this year, at the urging of First Lady Ann McCrory. The bill would set minimum standards for large, commercial dog-breeders, including exercise, fresh food and water, and veterinary care. The undercover investigations provision was dropped during the legislative session.

Agriculture groups band together

Agriculture has also organized to counter what it sees as an emotional campaign by the other side that is not based on facts.

“They are well-meaning people that don’t understand animals and livestock and animal husbandry, centuries worth of research and experience with animals,” said Peter Daniels, assistant to the president at the Farm Bureau.

Agriculture has long viewed the animal-welfare movement askance, over both livestock and puppy-mill regulation. About the time the Humane Society began stepping up its game in North Carolina, a report commissioned for the livestock industry warned in February 2010 that agricultural leaders felt the public has an increasingly negative view of farming.

The state is becoming more urban, the report said, and many agricultural leaders said the “locovore” movement was a particular concern.

“This growing gap is perceived as an immediate and growing threat to North Carolina agriculture,” the report said.

In April 2010, an attorney with the state Department of Agriculture, in an email to Troxler and others, said there was a need to address “the growing anti-animal agriculture sentiment here in NC” by developing a strategy.

Out of that came the N.C. Animal Agriculture Coalition, formed by the Farm Bureau, the N.C. Cattleman’s Association, the N.C. Cattleman’s Beef Council, the N.C. Pork Council, the N.C. Poultry Federation and the N.C. Soybean Producers Association. The organization has had help from a multimillion-dollar national organization, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which is supported by companies including Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere and farming organizations.

The North Carolina group’s task, through community forums and other means, is to paint a more favorable picture of farmers as stewards of the environment who also want to handle their animals humanely. Wooten says he doesn’t care if people don’t want to eat meat.

“Nobody condones a bad actor,” Wooten said. “Everybody knows today in agriculture people want to know where their food comes from. They have a right to know where their food comes from. We have no problem with that. But to try to legislate their prerogative to effect your consumer preference is wrong.

“The biggest challenge we face in this state right now is that interface of the growth in population, people rubbing against agriculture. That is a huge challenge. It’s something we’re going to have to deal with, and find a way not just to coexist but to allow both to exist and prosper.”

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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