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Restrictions on size of CAFO animal farms in Sonoma County to be decided by voters

PIX Now - Morning Edition 4/2/24
PIX Now - Morning Edition 4/2/24 11:03

Sonoma County voters will be asked this November if they want to restrict the size of animal farms.

The county clerk and registrar of voters approved the measure for the ballot last Wednesday after animal rights and environmental activists gathered more than enough signatures to meet the required 19,746.

The petition drive was led by the group Coalition to End Factory Farming, who want to end large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in Sonoma County.

The initiative calls for a three-year phase-out of one classification of animal farms --- large CAFO. It does not affect farms classified by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency as medium CAFO or smaller.

According to Coalition spokesperson Samantha Faye in a statement released Monday, the ordinance could affect two dozen sites that classify as Large CAFOs, which she said are only about 2.4% of animal farms in the county.

"Across these two dozen facilities, there are approximately 2.9 million animals confined," she said. "These facilities disproportionately affect animals, our water, our air quality, our public health, and the sustainability of agriculture in Sonoma County."

The group uses the EPA definition of CAFO, which differs depending on an animal's species, their quantities and the way the farm handles animal waste. For example, a duck farm is classified as a "large CAFO" if it confines 5,000 ducks and uses a liquid manure handling system that washes their waste into a holding pond or lagoon on site. If it disposes of manure some other way, it doesn't become a large CAFO until it has 30,000 ducks.

The potential ordinance would state that CAFOs disproportionately affect low-income and disadvantaged communities, and that the county intends to provide a retraining and employment assistance program for workers at CAFOs to facilitate the transition to safer forms of work.

"We are against the very vague language in the proposed ballot initiative put forth by the Coalition to End Factory Farming, and the group behind them, Direct Action Everywhere," said Jennifer Reichardt of Sonoma County Poultry, Liberty Ducks in an email. "This will not save family farms. The goal of this initiative is to put farms out of business."

Reichardt said that if the measure is passed, residents in the Bay Area will have to pay a higher price for meat, dairy, and eggs, because they will need to be imported.

"If it is passed, it will increase greenhouse emissions from trucking in products from further away, increase the cost of food, and shut down local, often multi-generational, businesses. It will put hundreds of employees out of work, and force the import of other meat, dairy, and eggs from outside the county and state," Reichardt said.

Sonoma is one of four California counties where the highly pathogenic avian flu was detected among commercial flocks last year, prompting the board of supervisors to declare a local state of emergency in December 2023.

The Coalition to End Factory Farming includes animal rights groups, small farm advocates, and Direct Action Everywhere, an organization that, among other things, wants to make legal the right of people to enter places such as factory farms to remove animals they say are in distress. Their activism includes trespassing to obtain video footage inside farms and rescuing animals. 

Their co-founder, San Francisco attorney Wayne Hsiung, was arrested in November and sentenced in Sonoma County to 90 days in jail and two years of probation last year for felony trespassing at chicken and duck farms in 2018 and 2019.

At a press conference Monday, Cassie King of Direct Action Everywhere said they watch farms from public property or may use satellite imagery to decide to enter a facility. For example, they may see if birds never go outside in a facility that's supposedly free range.

"Sometimes they find animals who are on the brink of death, who are clearly ill or injured and can't get themselves up, can't get themselves to food and water," she said. "If they leave them behind, they will surely die, either die slowly from starvation or dehydration. In many cases, facility employees will come and kill the individuals who are too sick or weak to feed themselves to survive." 

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