LINCOLN — One farm group's attempt to find common ground with an animal rights group is not winning it friends among others in agriculture.
The Nebraska Farmers Union said Tuesday it has reached an agreement with the Humane Society of the United States to develop standards and joint marketing efforts for humanely raised meat and other animal products.
However, We Support Agriculture, an alliance of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the Nebraska Cattlemen and other ag groups, said the Farmers Union has thrown in its lot with an organization that aims to end animal agriculture.
"We are shocked and disappointed that any Nebraska agriculture group would align itself with an extreme animal rights organization such as the Humane Society of the United States," said Pete McClymont, director of We Support Agriculture.
But Farmers Union President John Hansen said he views joining forces with the Humane Society as a way to boost family farms in Nebraska.
Recent polls have demonstrated that many consumers want to know whether the meat, eggs and milk they purchase come from animals that were treated well while they were alive, he said.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's rural poll, taken in July, showed that 69 percent of rural respondents believe that animal welfare includes adequate exercise, space and activities, as well as food, water and shelter.
Hansen said the Humane Society — with a reported 51,000 members, donors and volunteers in Nebraska — could help open the door to potentially lucrative markets for Nebraska farm products.
"They have marketing expertise, membership and financial resources," Hansen said of the Humane Society of the United States. "I'd rather see (their) members' money spent to create value-added ag production than financing damaging and expensive state ballot issues."
The idea is to leverage consumer demand to improve livestock handling practices, a Humane Society official said.
Joe Maxwell, a Missouri hog farmer whose operation markets about 1,000 humanely raised animals each week, said large-scale livestock operations are not diametrically opposed to animal welfare. Maxwell is the director of rural development and outreach for the Humane Society of the United States.
Maxwell and Hansen said the marketing alliance between the farm group and the animal welfare organization would be the first of its kind in the country.
McClymont, however, said there's no need to create another marketing avenue for humanely raised livestock products. Livestock producers already can certify their products as natural, organic and cruelty free.
"The bottom line is farmers and ranchers care about their animals and they raise them properly without other people telling them how to do it," he said.
Citing a comment from one of the Humane Society's top officials, McClymont said the Humane Society's "true" agenda is to eliminate meat consumption and animal agriculture.
"It is clear that (the Humane Society) does not want to work with Nebraska's leading and respected agricultural organizations, but instead wants to bully them with the threat of a ballot initiative," he said.
Hansen, who noted that the Farmers Union was not invited to participate in the We Support Agriculture alliance, said the other farm groups would better serve family farmers by fighting harder for livestock market reforms instead of baiting the Humane Society.
The number of pork producers in Nebraska has declined by 91 percent since 1980, he said.
"They did not get put out of business by the Humane Society of the U.S. and animal rights groups," he said. "They got put out of business by dysfunctional and noncompetitive agricultural markets."
In recent years, the Humane Society of the United States and its vegan president, Wayne Pacelle, have made farm animal welfare one of the group's missions, but Pacelle has repeatedly denied that the group's aim is to eliminate meat consumption. He also has said the group plans no ballot initiative in Nebraska.
The group led petition drives in California and Arizona that resulted in restrictions on battery cages for laying hens, gestation crates for sows and crates for veal calves. It also has negotiated agreements with producers in five states to phase out the use of such confinement methods.
At issue are cages so small that they prevent animals from being able to stretch their limbs or turn around. Poultry cages, which are stacked in battery fashion, are used to house more birds in a barn and reduce labor costs.
Gestation crates are used to prevent pregnant sows from attacking one another. Veal crates, which are being voluntarily phased out in favor of group pens, allowed animals to be individually fed with milk replacer.
McClymont said his group defends producers' options to use tight confinement.
"Absolutely," he said. "Those are practices that producers use in consultation with their veterinarians. They're not inherently cruel. They have pluses and minuses, depending upon how you use them."
McClymont and Phil Young, a political consultant working with the group, said consumers should resist regarding farm animals as having the same needs and qualities as humans. Producers cage animals to protect them from predators, from the elements and from each other.
At a Tuesday press conference outside Open Harvest, a Lincoln co-op organic grocery store, members of the Farmers Union and the Humane Society said they would develop voluntary criteria for humanely raised animal products to be marketed, at a premium price, at stores like Open Harvest.
The Farmers Union also would help establish a Nebraska Agricultural Council to advise the Humane Society on livestock welfare issues.
Kevin Fulton, an organic farmer and rancher from Litchfield, Neb., said he is pleased by the partnership, both for the marketing opportunities and for the protections it offers animals.
Fulton launched the negotiations last November, when he invited Pacelle to his farm and later helped organize a town hall meeting between Pacelle and Nebraska farm leaders.
"I'm simply a farmer providing a voice for millions of farm animals in this state that cannot be heard," he said. "My father was a farmer and a veterinarian and he taught me how to properly care for livestock. It's a responsibility I take very seriously, one I'm passing down to my own three children."
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