Farmers fear a barnyard Big Brother
After days of parading around her beefy black steer in the dung-scented August heat at the Colorado State Fair, Brandi Calderwood made the final competition. For months, the 16-year-old worked from dawn well past dusk, fitting in the work around school, to feed, train and clean her steer. But just before the last round, when the animals are sold, fair officials disqualified her.
They alleged that Brandi had not properly followed a new and controversial rule that required children to register their farms with a federal animal tracking system. After heated words, the Calderwoods were told to leave. A security guard trailed Brandi and her mother, even to the restroom.
“Emotionally she went through the wringer and didn’t get the honor of showing in the sale. For a 16-year-old, that’s a big deal,” said Cathy Calderwood, Brandi’s mother.
A Bush administration initiative, the National Animal Identification System is meant to provide a modern tool for tracking disease outbreaks within 48 hours, whether natural or the work of a bioterrorist. Most farm animals, even exotic ones such as llamas, will eventually be registered. Information will be kept on every farm, ranch or stable. And databases will record every animal movement from birth to slaughterhouse, including trips to the vet and county fairs.
But the system is spawning a grass-roots revolt.
Family farmers see it as an assault on their way of life by a federal bureaucracy with close ties to industrial agriculture. They point out that they will have to track every animal while vast commercial operations will be allowed to track whole herds.
Privacy advocates say the database would create an invasive, detailed electronic record of farmers’ activities. Religious farming communities, such as the Amish and Mennonites, fear the system is a manifestation of the Mark of the Beast foretold in the Book of Revelation.
And despite the administration’s insistence that the program is voluntary, farmers and families, such as the Calderwoods, chafe at the heavy-handed and often mandatory way states have implemented it, sometimes with the help of sheriff’s deputies.
The result is a system meant to help farms that many farmers oppose.
“It’s totally ridiculous,” said Joaquin Contente, who oversees 1,700 Holsteins on his Hanford, Calif., dairy farm. Contente said existing regulations in California and other states meant his cows and their movements were well-documented.
“We already have a good paper trail. It will be more of a burden for the small-to-average producer,” said Contente, who worries about the expense for an average-size farm like his.
Run by the Department of Agriculture, the system is meant to help combat threats such as avian flu and mad cow disease.
“Right now, we have six different disease-eradication programs, and they don’t always communicate with each other, and they’re paper intensive,” said Bruce Knight, a USDA undersecretary. “That worked fine in the last century, but that isn’t the way to run a rapid response system in the 21st century.”
Cattle groups were working on a registration system when, in 2003, a mad cow disease scare in Washington state set the industry on edge. A diseased Canadian cow entered the U.S. with 81 other cows, but only 29 could be found. More than 250 animals from 10 different herds were destroyed in the investigation.
Foreign beef trade stopped immediately, with industry losses estimated at $2 billion to $4 billion. Trade still has not fully recovered.
Within the cattle industry, the database is seen as essential to restore U.S. exports in the international market. There are more than 100 million beef cattle and about 10 million dairy cows in the United States. The world’s largest beef consumer, the European Union, is sensitive to mad cow disease because of outbreaks in Britain.
The first stage of the animal ID system involves free registration of the “premises” where livestock are kept. That seven-digit number is stored by the federal government, which had registered 440,997 farms as of last week, out of 1.43 million.
The second stage, now under way, involves identifying animals with a microchip or a plastic or metal ear tag containing a 15-digit code.
Federal officials aim to register cattle, bison, poultry, swine, sheep, goats, deer, elk, horses, mules, donkeys, burros, llamas and alpacas. Household pets are not included.
The third stage, not yet in effect, would require farmers to report animal movements to the database within 24 hours.
Farms that move animals in bulk from feedlot to slaughterhouse can get one animal ID for the entire herd. But smaller farmers who move and sell animals individually would have to get each animal an ID at a cost of about $1.50 apiece.
Small farmers are complaining about the cost of ID microchips and technology readers, as well as the labor costs involved in tracking and tagging animals.
“The small guy will get hit the hardest,” said Pam Potthoff, of Women Involved in Farm Economics, whose family runs a cow and calf farm in Trenton, Neb.
Other farmers argue that a one-size-fits-all system is not appropriate.
“Where is the scientific proof that small farmers pose the same disease risk as large confined feeding operations?” asked Judith McGeary, an Austin, Texas, farmer and lawyer, who founded the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance to fight the database system. “I could have been convinced that there were benefits to this program if they had come back and said here are the studies, here’s the epidemiology.”
McGeary, who raises grass-fed lamb, free-range poultry and laying hens, said the program could cripple smaller family farms and organic growers. “It will be impossible to report every death, every coyote carrying off a chicken; you just can’t,” she said.
Some Amish and Mennonite farmers have left agriculture rather than comply, said lawyer Mary-Louise Zanoni, who volunteers to work for the farmers. They are troubled by a passage in Revelation 13:16-18. Those verses tell of an evil force that will manifest itself as an outside entity, like a government, that forces people to buy or sell things under a numbering system. “We feel the premises registration, animal ID issue, is an act of the anti-Christ,” a group of Old Order Amish farmers wrote in a letter to Wisconsin agriculture officials.
The USDA’s Knight said he was aware of the Amish’s concerns but countered that one common-sense solution was to sign these communities up for a premises ID and not for individual animal IDs. He dismissed reports that Amish or Mennonite farmers had given up farming because of the system. “This is rife with rumor,” he said.
The administration originally wanted mandatory participation in the database when it was unveiled in 2005, but an outcry from farmers and ranchers forced a shift to voluntary registration. Agriculture officials warned, however, that the program would remain voluntary only if enough farms participated. One draft plan commits the department to meet by 2011 “necessary levels of participation,” defined as 70% of animals in a species.
States and farm groups, such as the National Cattlemen’s Foundation, can implement the system as they want. In fact, President Bush has not registered his Crawford, Texas, ranch or the eight head of cattle he keeps, according to a White House spokesman.
Opponents of the ID system, however, say the USDA actions are making the program virtually compulsory. Since 2004, USDA has pledged more than $51 million to states and farm groups to promote premises registration -- but they must register a certain number of farms to get the money. “They only get the money if they get the performance,” said Knight, who acknowledged “a great deal of resistance out there.”
Some states have responded by registering farms in less than voluntary ways.
Idaho, New York and Massachusetts issued premises numbers to livestock owners unasked. Texas adopted regulations for elk that initially required microchips and a report of any movements “by the close of the next business day.” Wisconsin told milk producers that cheese plants could not take milk from farms without a premises number. North Carolina announced that only farmers with a premises ID could receive drought aid.
Michigan required any cattle leaving a farm to have radio-frequency ID chips with individual numbers. When one farmer in East Jordan refused, arguing that he sells from his 20-head herd only to people he knows, the state agriculture department showed up with a search warrant, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers to tag and test his animals.
Many farmers also deeply resent the way the USDA’s youth programs, including 4H and Future Farmers of America, are requiring children like Brandi Calderwood to register.
“This is like the government saying your kids can’t be in your community soccer program unless you register your home with the government,” Cathy Calderwood said. “It’s just way too much Big Brother.”
The Calderwoods and some other families had registered their animals with the county fairground’s number because fair rules had simply called for a “valid” number. After disqualifying Brandi, officials said she could stay if she registered her farm. The Calderwoods, opponents of the database, refused.
Fair officials paid Brandi the sum she would have gotten for her steer, but Brandi said: “It is too bad that the state fair had to ruin my experience.”
John Stulp, Colorado’s agriculture commissioner, said that 480 other fairgoers registered without complaint and suggested that some resistance was simply a reaction to change.
Statewide, about 28% of the premises are registered, he said, but more are needed to safeguard Colorado’s $16-billion agriculture industry. “We have a responsibility to protect and enhance our agriculture industry,” Stulp said. “Part of that is to make sure we rapidly respond to some kind of disease outbreak or threat in our state.”