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Putting animal agriculture out to pasture is a bad moo-ve

I’ve jokingly told my husband many times we went into the wrong side of farming because our farm is missing cows. We both grew up on and around dairy farms and have the mud boots and stories to prove it. But our farming plans are very black-and-white, my husband loves baling hay more than milking cows, so our farm remains cow-free. Unfortunately, for family farmers in Sonoma County California, their farming plans are no longer black-and-white, as they may be forced into cow-free operations and pushed out of business.


Sonoma County California residents may ban animal agriculture this November, when a ballot initiative comes before voters. Pushed by the animal activist organization, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), known for trespassing on and damaging farms and livestock, the signatures have been obtained by a misunderstood fear of factory farming. The goal of DxE is to end animal agriculture.

Some citizens who submitted signatures are even calling the county registrar in an attempt to remove their names because they felt they had been duped by scare tactics. As of Wednesday, March 27th, enough signatures (15,000) have been received to allow the initiative to be in front of voters in November.


In a county with over 487,000 residents, only 30% of the total population lives outside of the city limit and only 3,097 farms exist within the county. These farms employ just over 11,000 people, meaning that only 2.2% of the county is directly involved in agriculture.


In November, 98% of Sonoma County citizens far removed from agriculture could destroy the remaining family-owned animal farming operations in their county, increase unemployment among farmworkers, and hurt local food manufacturers.


The ballot initiative would ban all Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) within the county boundaries, limiting dairies to 700 cows and poultry operations to 30,000 birds. To anyone not involved in agriculture, these numbers sound huge but let’s consider the cost and challenges of farming.


Average prices of a new tractor in 2023 were $491,800 up from $363,700 in 2020. Land rental costs are over $10,000 per acre. Feed costs have soared right along with milk prices, keeping the net profit margin thin to non-existent. Labor is harder to find and more expensive and the alternative is installing multiple robotic milkers between $150,000 to $200,000 each.


Costs are a major reason driving farmers to expand their operations. Dairy farm production data show farms with over 1,000 cows will be much more profitable than those with less than 250 cows. Farms with 1,000 to 5,000 cows have more opportunity to distribute these high operational costs over more cows and protect already narrow margins from inflation and price challenges.


Regulatory costs are also part of every dairy farm operation. CAFO dairy farms are required by law to protect water resources and “not discharge toxic manure directly into public waterways, including protected wetlands” (as claimed by the activist organization). California’s regional water quality boards and California EPA already actively prosecute and enforce the stringent water protection guidelines for dairies.


Dairy farmers aren’t milking this sob story about costs, because if the ballot initiative passes, consumers will be the ones crying over spilled milk. When large dairies are forced out of business that tightens the supply of milk and increases the costs. Immediate consequences may not be seen because one county prohibiting milk and egg production will not cause a large supply ripple. However, when other counties and states follow Sonoma County, the compounding impact of ending animal agriculture will increase the prices of milk and eggs at the grocery store.


I have been on many dairy farms, both small and large. Small operations don’t always equate to better care, nor do large operations neglect livestock. Some of the best care I see animals receive is on larger operations. On large operations farms can afford better waste management systems, more labor to care for cows, better feed, more herd health management, and better milking systems. The same is true for many poultry farms.


Small operations are idyllic but rarely feasible in this economic era. Pushing farm businesses out to pasture, only because they’ve grown to keep up with expenses is an unfair solution. Come November we’ll see if the 98% of non-agricultural residents in Sonoma County will overcome fear and see farmers as people too.

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