New Ohio Ag Council seeks to promote humane treatment of farm livestock
By MARK FAHEY and rachel lloyd
Not everyone goes into grocery stores in West Central Ohio looking for meat from farms with humane animal treatment.
The shrink-wrapped stacks of beef, chicken and pork come from the major sellers, Cargill and National Beef Packing Co., and there hasn’t been much demand voiced for anything else, said Washington Court House Kroger Assistant Head Meat Cutter Randy Monroe, who has worked at the location for 24 years.
But at smaller markets, the customer base can be much different, where people frequently are seeking locally and humanely sourced meats.
“We get a lot of questions for that,” said Connor Haren, owner of the Troy Meat Shop in Troy since August 2011. Haren said so many customers are interested in the source of their meat that the shop, which gets the majority of its meat locally, tries to “specialize” in humane sourced meats. “People are most definitely interested in where their meat comes from, and it’s becoming more and more.”
A new group of Ohio farmers assembled by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is hoping to bring consumers closer to the people that raise their cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep, and to promote farming practices that lead to better treatment of livestock.
The new Ohio Agricultural Council of the HSUS, announced at the HSUS Humane Lobby Day on April 24, is one of only three such groups in the nation, following successful efforts in Nebraska and Colorado. The councils are charged with highlighting farmers who use humane animal management, helping consumers connect with those farmers and encouraging other operations to transition to more humane practices.
“It’s a good opportunity for all of us in agriculture to have a dialogue with our consumers,” said Joe Maxwell, vice president of outreach and engagement for the HSUS. “That’s what this program is all about.”
Maxwell, a fourth generation hog farmer from Missouri, said that the three state agriculture councils, created in October 2011, April 2012, and April 2013, will use suggestions from local farmers to learn about how best to market humane products to consumers. Eventually the program is expected to expand into other agricultural states and across the country.
“Each state is very, very different,” Maxwell said. “Ohio is a great place for us to look at and start a council — the agricultural base is very rich and full of great farmers, but it is very different from what we’d find in Nebraska or Colorado.”
The council members, William Miller (Butler County), Mardy Townsend (Ashtabula County), Bruce Rickard (Knox County), Joe Logan (Trumbull County), and Warren Taylor (Meigs County), each work for farms that use sustainable and humane production methods. The five farmers will hold meetings on how to improve agriculture in the state and how to encourage farmers and consumers to invest in operations that chose humane treatment.
Mike Bumgarner, vice president for the Ohio Farm Bureau’s Center for Food and Animal Issues, is concerned that the new council doesn’t accurately represent Ohio’s wider farming community.
“Our disappointment with what we saw with the council is it doesn’t seem to be very inclusive,” said Bumgarner. “We commend them on the effort, but there is no broad-scale diversity within their production practices. If we’re going to address issues within our farming community we’ll need to have all groups represented.”
Maxwell said that the founding members of the council were largely selected because they had been active in communicating with or working with the HSUS in the past. Additional farmers will be encouraged to join the council after approval from existing members.
The HSUS has worked with the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board in recent years to implement a number of reforms, including phasing out veal crates, gestation crates and battery cages, three long-time targets of animal rights activists. Bumgarner said that the creation of the new council implies that the existing board, which has been open to input from all citizens in the state for several years, is not adequate.
“It seems to be suggesting that their judgment is better, that they know better about what our standards ought to be,” said Bumgarner.
Maxwell disagreed with that interpretation, saying that the board’s success had been one of the factors that had lead the HSUS to consider Ohio as the next state to establish a council in the first place.
“We are actually very proud of the Care Standards Board and commend the Farm Bureau,” he said. “One reason we selected Ohio is that agriculture leaders have stepped up to the plate and are really taking on these tough inhumane activities.”
Still, many Ohio farmers seem wary of the Humane Society. Bumgarner said that there are significant differences of opinion between the HSUS and many of the Farm Bureau’s members. Some of the organization’s suggestions, including the “Three R’s of eating with a conscience,” — refining dietary choices by switching to products with high welfare standards, reducing consumption of animal products, and replacing animal products with plant-base options — seem directly at odds with the economic interests of farmers in the meat industry, he said.
Ellen Joslin, of Sidney, a member of the Ohio Farm Bureau board of trustees, said that farmers are always working to ensure their animals are properly cared for and that they are happy to work with the Care Standards Board.
“We fought hard for the Care Standards Board,” Joslin said. “It’s working well and that’s what we want to continue to work for.”
Joslin and husband Rob no longer raise animals on their farm, but they previously have raised beef cattle and hogs, and Rob grew up on a dairy farm.
“Dairy farmers will tell you, they spend more time with ‘the girls’ than they do their friends and family,” Joslin said. “At no time does any farmer want to see their animals mistreated or treated badly. you take care of them because that’s an important part of your work and your life.”
Mardy Townsend, a founding council member who runs a 125-head grass-fed cattle farm in northeast Ohio, said that the idea that the HSUS is a vegetarian organization like some other groups is a misconception.
“The Humane Society of the United States is an animal welfare group, not an animal rights group, and that’s a very important distinction,” Townsend said. “I can guarantee, knowing a lot of HSUS members, that they’re not all vegetarians.”
Townsend said the HSUS encourages people to reduce their meat consumption because the organization is concerned about living in a world with finite resources.
“Not everybody in the world can consume the amount of meat that we do in this country. There is no way to produce that amount of meat, and you can produce more vegetables or more grain on the same piece of ground,” she said. “That’s what’s behind their thinking that we should not be consuming the amount that we do right now.”
The main goal of the new council, Townsend said, is not to criticize the Care Standards Board or Ohio’s farmers, but to connect the state’s 480,000 HSUS members with producers employing a certain type of agricultural practices. Despite his misgivings, Bumgarner said the Farm Bureau approves of the council’s effort to make it easier for consumers to understand where their food originates.
“Any time there’s questions about food and where it’s coming from, we’re open to dialogue,” he said. “I think consumers do want to know where their food comes from and I think consumers should have choices. Any time you try to connect consumers with where their food comes from, that’s a good thing.”
The council is planning on looking at existing systems for connecting consumers with farmers with good practices and will adopt a system that works well in Ohio. The system would help Ohio’s farmers take advantage of the state’s better animal welfare practices, said Maxwell.
Dr. Paul J. Hunter, of Minster Veterinary Services, has been taking care of livestock for 30 years, and he has seen few signs of mistreatment of the animals.
“I’m not saying it doesn’t occur,” he said, “But it’s not widespread and the rules we have in place are sufficient.”
Hunter said Ohio has been a leader in proposing and implementing improved care standards for livestock, and over his years in the veterinary business, he said things have improved for the animals.
“The humane situations have improved over the years,” Hunter said. “The people who weren’t doing thing properly are out of business, and the people who are taking care of their animals are doing well because their animals are doing well for them.”
Hunter said people should not confuse the HSUS with their local humane society-type groups.
“HSUS is an animal-rights group seeking to eliminate animals in agriculture,” Hunter said. “It’s a political action group that does not support local shelters or things that.”
Right now, there is no good way for a consumer to go to the grocery store and know whether he or she is buying meat that has come from a humane source, said Daniel Hauff, an animal rights activist who has worked for Mercy for Animals and PETA. Maxwell agreed with Hauff that the majority of animals products currently come from factory farm models.
The HSUS associates the rise of factory farming with increased abuse and the decline of the family farm. According to the organization, an increase in industrial animal production over recent decades corresponded with the loss of 95 percent of the nation’s egg farmers, 90 percent of its pig farmers, and 40 percent of its cattle farmers.
“At some point operations get so large and they lose the simple focus on the animal,” said Maxwell. “I like to reinforce on my farm that I’m a pig producer, not a pork producer.”
Maxwell said that although larger corporate-controlled farms may find it more difficult to make humane decisions, it is possible for all farming operations to transition to more humane methods. Townsend said she would certainly be open to bringing some larger producers onto the council and is especially seeking hog and poultry farmers to join.
“There are good animal practices for all species, and for someone to be on the council they would need to be willing to abide by those standards,” Townsend said. “Size is not the issue as much as the actual practices.”
For grass-fed beef producers like Townsend, she said the operation didn’t require very many changes to be in line with what the HSUS recommends, and the council’s efforts to connect producers with enthusiastic consumers may bring better prices for those products and help motivate other farmers to make the switch.
“If other producers want to join with us, that’s great. If not, the free market rules,” she said. “All farmers need to make tough decisions about their production methods, no matter what animal you’re raising, and it’s always hard to change your production methods.”
Mark Fahey writes for The Record-Herald in Washington Court House and Rachel Lloyd writes for the Sidney Daily News.