Ohio voters will decide next week whether to create a board overseeing livestock care in a move that could give farmers in rural America a blueprint for battling animal rights groups intent on outlawing cramped cages for chickens and hogs.
Agriculture industry leaders pushed the issue onto the state ballot, hoping to thwart an attempt by animal rights activists who were threatening to force farmers to change how they house livestock.
Voters in California, Florida and Arizona already have approved measures that require more space for confined farm animals. Lawmakers in Colorado, Maine, Michigan and Oregon have adopted similar rules.
Supporters of the changes say animals raised for food deserve humane treatment. Opponents argue the regulations will force farmers to make costly changes that could put them out of business and drive up the price of eggs, chicken, pork and beef.
That's why Ohio's agriculture leaders decided to take a shot at creating a livestock board that would include farmers and animal care experts.
Voters in Ohio — often a crucial swing state in national elections — will decide Tuesday whether to approve Issue 2 in what could be a significant decision for farmers nationwide.
"We've tried to model this in a way that other states can look at it," said Jack Fisher, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. "This involves farmers, ranchers, everyone in the food chain."
Animal rights groups, led by the Humane Society of the United States, are targeting the 24 states that allow signature-driven petitions to appear on their ballots.
It's an easier process than trying to go through the legislatures. And campaigns in California and elsewhere have shown that voters respond to the Humane Society's pitch that farmers shouldn't be allowed to use such practices as housing laying hens in cages smaller than an 8-inch-by-11-inch sheet of paper.
"People have similar views about these issues everywhere," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. "In California, we won in urban, suburban and rural areas."
A survey, he said, showed that there's not one state where people favor gestation crates that allow little movement for sows giving birth.
Big farm operators say animals rights groups are telling only part of the story.
"They argue on the emotional level," said Scott Stuart, president of the National Livestock Producers Association, which is based in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They don't pay attention to the science at all."
Those within the industry say they need to do a better job of explaining why confining animals makes sense. They contend that cages protect the animals from predators and each other, keep barns cleaner and make it easier to inspect and treat the animals.
Too many people think of farm animals like the family pet, said Toby Moore, a spokesman for the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council in Stone Mountain, Ga.
"They've had talking farm animals in the movies for years," he said. "People truly don't understand agriculture. They just see cages as inhumane and cruel."
Until now, farmers have been caught off guard by the push to eliminate cages and other practices.
"We're used to producing food. That's never been questioned before," said Jay Rempe, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Farm Bureau. "It's caused agriculture to reach out and think about the consumer."
The Ohio Farm Bureau has opened the Center for Food and Animal Issues to get out its message on farm animal, pet and research issues.
The organization and its backers expect to spend $3 to $5 million in support of Issue 2, a constitutional amendment that would create a 13-member Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.
Members would include Ohio's agriculture director, family farmers, veterinarians, a representative of a local humane society and consumers.
Interest in the outcome is high, especially in the Midwest.
"This is Humane Society of the United States' first venture into the heartland, the bread basket," Fisher said. "This is a new test for the industry."
Approval of Issue 2 would not prevent animal rights groups from trying to ban farm animal cages, but it would force them to gather more signatures for a spot on the ballot.
"We'll have to see how this plays out," Pacelle said. "We don't intend to relent and allow this very unfair outcome to stand."
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