Ben Franklin, in one of his more famous quotes, told his fellow patriots at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Livestock producers in Colorado know all too well the depth of those words.
It began as early as 2005, when Colorado's livestock industry first heard rumors that they were the next target in the ongoing campaign by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) to destroy the livestock industry in the U.S.
In the business of engineering a social agenda, HSUS is perhaps one of the most persistent and successful. That's why, when the hammer fell in January of 2007 and Colorado's livestock industry learned that rumor had indeed become fact, reactions were heated.
“The first thing is, you get mad that someone who knows absolutely nothing about your business, who has never been out there on a -32° morning pulling a calf or plowing a road at midnight so you can get that last round of feed to a set of cattle, is going to come in here and accuse you of abusing your livestock,” says Bill Hammerich, CEO of the Colorado Livestock Association. “It's absolute anger — red-faced and bad words.”
It's a reaction that Colorado livestock producers shared, regardless of species. But after the initial flush of emotion passed, they found themselves looking into the hard face of reality. And that reality was Florida and Arizona, where HSUS was successful in its initial efforts at incrementalism, chipping away at animal producers bit by bit, state by state.
So the organizations that represent Colorado's animal agriculture began talking, first amongst themselves, then to their consumers.
“A lot of what we learned through some polling illustrated that people in Colorado perceive HSUS and Wayne Pacelle as a very credible and reasonable entity when it comes to animal care and animal welfare,” says Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. “In some cases, ranked higher than farmers and ranchers. I think that spoke volumes.”
HSUS' initial intent for Colorado, just as it had been in Florida and Arizona and currently is in California, was to promote a ballot initiative that would have restricted how producers can manage their livestock. High on the HSUS agenda for Colorado, as it has been elsewhere, was gestation crates for hogs, veal crates and battery cages for laying hens.
But based on the polling results, Colorado's livestock leaders weren't sure they could successfully counter an emotional and expensive attempt by HSUS to force its views on Colorado consumers. Hammerich and Fankhauser say it takes at least $5 million to fight a ballot initiative in the state; and that figure can easily double if it's an emotional issue. Colorado's agricultural community simply didn't have the money.
“So you sit down, take a deep breath and look at what's happened,” Hammerich says. “You do some talking and you start playing poker — what you can negotiate, what you can't.”
That process began in April of last year, when livestock leaders met with Pacelle and began to probe the possibilities. That was followed up with another meeting in August.
The outcome of those face-to-face negotiations was that HSUS would pull its ballot initiative in favor of compromise legislation regarding gestation crates for swine, veal crates and laying cages. While Colorado's poultry producers opted to not be part of the compromise, the rest of the livestock community agreed and went to the Colorado legislature during its 2008 session. The bill passed and was signed by the governor in May.
“Our organization and many of our members look at these issues as agriculture needs to stand together on these things,” Fankhauser says. “While we compete on every other level, animal care and handling and animal welfare is something I think we need to stand united on. We worked as hard as the industries that were named in the legislation in the understanding that if and when the cattle industry, and it will be when, has an issue like this, we'll be able to look around and find everybody from the greenhouse tomato growers to the poultry industry and the swine industry standing side by side on the issue with us.”
The Colorado legislature convenes from January to May, and Fankhauser and Hammerich expect to face more animal rights legislation in 2009. Ballot initiatives can only be offered on even-numbered years, so Colorado's livestock producers are already bracing for HSUS to return in 2010, most likely with a focus on laying hens.
In the meantime, Fankhauser says animal agriculture isn't standing still. “We've reached out to the more moderate animal care, animal welfare, animal rescue-type entities,” he says. Many of those organizations realize that what HSUS is trying to do legislatively and through ballot initiatives actually harms their efforts, because it polarizes the animal welfare issue. “It harms the work they're trying to do, and they realize that this type of legislation's intent isn't always necessarily for the animal.”
Some have accused Colorado's animal agriculture industry of rolling over and playing dead, especially since HSUS' standard operating procedure is to approach agricultural organizations and offer first to negotiate. Then, if refused, they steamroll in with lots of money and a bevy of dedicated animal rights activists and push their ballot initiative.
In Colorado's case, however, the polling data clearly indicted that animal agriculture wouldn't win a fight at the ballot box.
“I think common sense would tell you the middle ground is to try to negotiate the best deal you can,” Hammerich says. “To everyone's satisfaction? Absolutely not. But you don't have to get it rammed down your throat, either.”