Foresight on Food Politics: Behind the objection over Humane Society farmers

Is the Humane Society of the United States a friend of farming, or foe?

Promises by former Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman in 2010 to "kick their butt out of Nebraska" notwithstanding, the Washington, D.C., animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States is back in the state, and back big. And its appearance is building some friction between farmers here.

HSUS chose Lincoln to announce in early May it was forming a national agriculture advisory council, to create an umbrella group for its 11 similar state agriculture advisory councils. Small boards of farmers from within the state whose members "share the principles" of the organization, the state councils are made up of "farmers, producers and agriculture professionals who believe in compassionate, responsible farming," according to the society. The councils are centered in midwestern farm states where HSUS has attempted to influence legislation and place ballot initiatives to force changes in animal agriculture over the last decade.

HSUS' new national council will be headed by Litchfield organic farmer Kevin Fulton, who said through an HSUS press release, "We are fully committed to working with The HSUS to improve the welfare of farm animals in a way that benefits not only the animals, but the family farmer, the consumer and our environment.”

“I think a lot of us [farmers] have common ground and common values with the organization,” Fulton told WNAX radio in Yankton.

But Fulton's fellow farmers in Nebraska are skeptical.

"Our coalition was formed actually to combat the Humane Society of the United States and organizations like [it]," said Ansley Mick, Executive Director of We Support Agriculture, a Nebraska coalition of the livestock-producer groups in the state. "Most growers would agree they represent the No. 1 threat to animal agriculture in Nebraska and, frankly, in the U.S." With $135.5 million in revenue and $214 million in assets, HSUS has very deep pockets, Mick told Nebraska Rural Radio Network, and they have shadowy ties to misinformation campaigns about animal agriculture and more radical animal-rights groups, including those that create inflammatory "undercover" cruelty videos aimed at giving animal production a black eye.

"We've been telling people all along this is not the organization you think it is. Their actual goal here is to end animal agriculture. Their forming councils like this sort of solidifies our argument."

Not so, says the Nebraska state director for HSUS, Jocelyn Nickerson. "I want to set the record straight," she writes in a letter to the Lincoln Journal Star. " The Humane Society of the United States wants more traditional farmers on the land, not fewer." Nickerson argues the "industrial factory farming processors" have caused a 96 percent drop in the number of Nebraska pig farms in the last 50 years.

"Maybe it's time for a different approach—one that puts our farmers, our communities, the land, the environment and the concerns of our customers first for a change," she writes.

But the new conciliation likely marks only a change in strategy for the long-time advocate for reducing consumption of meat, milk, eggs, leather, commercially bred pets and other products of animal agriculture. When controversial HSUS head Wayne Pacelle last publicly appeared in Nebraska in 2013, he signaled a similar change in direction for the organization, from pushing legislation to end objectionable farming practices like the use of gestation crates that pig farmers typically use to manage pregnant animals toward high-visibility PR shaming campaigns to force big food manufacturers and retailers to do it for them. "[Legislation] is entirely unnecessary,” he assured the Lincoln Journal Star at the time, “because the market atmosphere has overtaken gestation crate issues.”

Despite an absence of any meaningful research that demonstrates real consumer demand for an end to the practice—except that research created by the association in order to support its mission—retailers do appear to be proving Pacelle correct: The market may be changing to favor the HSUS position that many mainline farm organizations continue to see as simply the first shot in further restrictions on agriculture. Agriculture interests consider such "market driven" tactics as simply another means by which HSUS hopes to make animal farming so financially burdensome as to make it ultimately unsustainable in present form.

Groups like Nebraska's We Support Agriculture argue that despite what HSUS and Pacelle say, they see collaboration by retailers and fringe farm groups like the Nebraska Farmers Union as an unhealthy alliance that will ultimately damage the financial viability of Nebraska's food system, not just for the large farms Nickerson and HSUS in general currently uses as a whipping boy, but for small farms and other chain members, as well.

If the HSUS is really intent on working with farmers," writes a San Antonio lawyer who advocates for animal-use freedom in horse issues, Randy Janssen, in a Facebook post, "the first thing it should do is get rid of [avowed vegan HSUS spokesmen Pacelle and Paul Shapiro]. These men destroy any credibility the HSUS has with meat producers. Then the HSUS should disavow Meatless Monday. If the HSUS does not, then it truly is just a vegan cult that wants to shut down animal production in the US."


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