Groups seek to ban large-scale animal farming in Sonoma County

Think “Sonoma County Farm” and most people will conjure up the image of docile cows chewing their cud or chickens scratching the dirt, quietly spending their days among the grassy, ​​green hills of this coastal and mostly rural California county. North.

But animal rights activists say all is not well in this region known for its sensitivity to wine and farm-to-fork production. They say there are two dozen large, concentrated livestock operations — collectively housing nearly 3 million animals — that foul watersheds and torture livestock and poultry in confined lots and cages.

And in an effort to stop it, they collected more than 37,000 signatures from Sonoma County residents to end it – forcing the county Board of Supervisors to either enact or uphold the order themselves, or to postpone it until November. ballot.

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“For too long, these operations have capitalized on the image of small, humane, environmentally friendly Sonoma County farms,” said Samantha Faye, spokesperson for the Coalition to End Factory Farming. a group of animal welfare advocates, environmentalists and small producers. sponsoring the initiative.

But agricultural interests say there are no concentrated animal feeding operations in the county. And if the ballot initiative passes, it would threaten hundreds of family and multi-generational farms, while immediately closing around 60 of them.

Proponents of the ordinance aim to “get rid of animal agriculture together, everywhere,” insisted Dayna Ghirardelli, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. She said the petition organizers are animal “extremists” and are using this legislation as a way to start the process of destroying farms. “This is just the beginning.”

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, agrees.

“This ballot initiative would eliminate the family ranching that is so important in Sonoma County,” he said. “There will be no Sonoma County eggs, chicken, dairy, cheese, lamb and other animals in your supermarkets if this initiative passes.”

The order, as written, would phase out medium- and large-sized concentrated farm feeding operations, also known as CAFOs. The ordinance defines these operations as any facility that includes animals housed or confined for 45 days or more in a 12-month period. It also sets parameters regarding the number of animals allowed – which varies depending on the species – as well as the way in which manure is dumped.

For example, a large CAFO is defined as an operation with more than 700 dairy cattle – and would be prohibited under the ordinance. The same would be true for a medium-sized CAFO – with more than 200 cattle – if it dumped animal waste into surface waters. In the case of chickens, it would be illegal to house 125,000 chickens, or more than 37,500 if the facility discharged its waste into surface waters.

A “competent authority” could also close a medium-sized CAFO if it considered the facility to be a “significant contributor of pollutants.”

The order provides a phase-out period for any prohibited agricultural operations and requires the county to provide retraining and employment assistance to workers on affected agricultural operations.

California voters overwhelmingly approved two statewide ballot measures in 2008 and 2018 addressing animal confinement, establishing minimum space requirements for a variety of livestock, including laying hens, veal calves and pigs.

Faye said in Sonoma County there are thousands of farms with animals. Only two dozen would be considered large CAFOs under the order. Collectively, these 24 are home to nearly 3 million animals.

Meanwhile, she said there are about 50 farms in the medium designation. “In total, these farms only have 435,000 animals. The difference there is really extreme.

Ghirardelli pushed back on that comparison.

“When we talk about two million animals, we cannot equate a cow, a horse or a chicken. That’s why when we talk about livestock science, we talk about animal units,” she said, explaining that one animal unit equals 1,000 pounds of animal. “It therefore takes several chickens to create an animal unit. Whereas for a dairy cow that weighs 1,400 pounds, that cow can exceed one animal unit.

Trying to compare a farm with hundreds of thousands of laying hens to a dairy farm with 40 animals just doesn’t make sense, she said.

Lewis Bernier, an animal rights activist who supports the initiative, said he has visited several factory farms across the country, documenting inhumane treatment, and that one farm in Sonoma County stands out as having “the worst and most systemic animal cruelty I have ever seen.” .”

He described birds that had lived their entire lives on wire floors, in crowded conditions, unable to right themselves after a fall – because they had never developed the muscles to do so.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “And the people of Sonoma County want no part of that kind of thing.”

If the county board decides not to vote on the ordinance, it will be forwarded to county staff who will conduct an economic analysis, then the board will present the results at a public meeting. The board of directors has until the end of April to make a decision.

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