Group seeks to outlaw local dairy, poultry farms

Direct Action Everywhere is using dirty tactics to trick county residents into signing their petitions, says columnist John Burns.|

Recent news reports documenting the criminal trial of Wayne Hsiung – the Berkeley man whose band of animal rights activists stormed two Petaluma poultry farms in 2018 and 2019 seeking to “liberate” birds and shut down farm operations – have focused public attention on a little-known group seeking radical change. Hsiung is co-founder of Berkeley-based Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), which routinely uses such brazenly disruptive tactics in hopes of triggering a public ban on animal farming practices.

Following the local protests, dozens of group members were arrested and charged with trespassing on farm properties and illegally entering production facilities, where they removed chickens and ducks they claimed were being mistreated. They chained themselves to property and to each other and forced each business to temporarily shut down operations.

Nearly all those arrested have since reached plea deals or had the criminal charges dismissed. But Hsiung is facing felony counts of conspiracy and trespassing in Sonoma County Superior Court.

Last week’s testimony by a Reichardt Duck Farm manager provided shocking details of how one fanatical protestor nearly decapitated himself after wrapping a bicycle U-lock around his neck and attaching it to farm processing equipment, which prompted his colleagues to frantically press random buttons while attempting to shut off the machinery.

While the court case and publicity has accurately described the incursions at the duck farm and the Sunrise Egg Farm, most people are unaware of the steady progress these militants have made gathering signatures necessary to qualify a local ballot measure which, if passed, would permanently ban most animal husbandry practices in Sonoma County.

According to Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the proposed law, titled “Prohibition on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” would effectively outlaw “99% of Sonoma County dairies and all county poultry operations.”

To survive, Ghirardelli says dairy farmers would need to “drastically change their operations to milk less cows. This would ultimately result in dairies going out of business because a smaller model would not be sustainable.”

Local milk processors like Clover Sonoma and Straus Family Creamery would also face severe hardships, says Ghirardelli, and would be forced to source milk outside of the area to stay in business. The many negative economic ramifications to the county’s agricultural industry would be extensive, she says, noting the law would apply to certified organic farms, even those which raise sheep for wool production.

The threat is quite real. According to the “Coalition to End Factory Farming” website operated by DxE, the group has already secured 15,000 signatures in advance of a March 5 deadline to qualify the measure for the November 2024 ballot. A total of 19,746 verified signatures of county registered voters are needed for the measure to secure placement on the ballot.

But Ghirardelli says the group is using false claims, misinformation and scare tactics to obtain voter signatures. As an example, she cites a statement on the group’s website saying that local dairies “discharge toxic manure directly into public waterways including protected wetlands.”

“That’s not true,” says Ghirardelli, noting that all dairy farms must fully comply with California’s stringent state water quality control standards.

To elicit donations and volunteers for its campaign, DxE has posted aerial video footage, cleverly accompanied by somber piano music, that zeroes in on a dead cow at a Sonoma Dairy. But Ghirardelli says that when cows die, as they sometimes do, their bodies are typically set aside for pick up and transport to a slaughterhouse.

Another video on the group’s website shows some chickens with missing feathers, implying that the birds have been mistreated. But Ghirardelli says that chickens regularly shed, or molt, their feathers to make way for new ones.

There is nothing incriminating in the videos, says Ghirardelli. But they do give uninitiated viewers the distinct impression that Sonoma County farmers are abusing their animals.

Some people who signed the DxE petition now say they were misled and regret having given support to the initiative. One signer, a graduate of Petaluma High School now in her mid-20s, told me she was encouraged to sign the petition last month in downtown Petaluma. The woman, who declined to have her name published, said she was told the measure was aimed at regulating “factory farms.”

She mistakenly assumed the businesses effected were giant corporate farm operations in the Midwest and was never told the proposed law would exclusively target Sonoma County’s family farms.

After learning the truth from a friend who works at the local office of the UC Cooperative Extension, the woman immediately called the County Registrar of Voters and is now seeking to have her name removed from the petition.

The Farm Bureau’s Ghirardelli says she’s aware of many people in the same position, and laments the duplicitous tactics employed by DxE activists to trick locals into signing their petition.

So, if DxE is primarily an East Bay organization, why is it working so hard to dupe Sonoma County residents into banning milk and egg production here?

The short answer: Hsiung and his idealistic followers believe we have enough progressive voters to make Sonoma County the first in the nation to formally outlaw animal agriculture.

According to DxE’s detailed “40 Year Roadmap to Animal Liberation,” getting a single county to adopt such a policy aligns with its long-range strategy to end all animal farming in the United States and adopt a federal “Animal Bill of Rights” granting legal “personhood” to every American farm animal.

Local dairy and poultry farmers struggle daily against enormous economic headwinds ranging from megadroughts, fires and increasingly erratic weather conditions triggered by climate change to skyrocketing production and regulatory costs, as well as the high cost of living in Sonoma County. Many farm profit margins are paper thin, and the next generation of farmers is, with the exception of those cultivating wine grapes, mostly moving on.

Should the DxE initiative qualify for the ballot, farmers here will have to devote time, money and energy to educating their neighbors on how it would kill their ability to stay in business.

For generations, Sonoma County agricultural producers have provided us with a diverse range of fresh food products including eggs, meats, wool and a wide variety of milk products, while helping avoid urban sprawl, retaining scenic beauty and our rural character, and protecting biological diversity and wildlife habitat.

But if people keep signing the DxE petitions, that may all be in jeopardy.

(John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)

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