Talk of Maine
Donald E. Hoenig has been a veterinarian for twenty-eight years, and in that time he has seen a lot of animal manure. But until one Saturday afternoon in early March, he had never seen it in an aluminum pie pan being hurled at his head.
Hoenig is the Maine state veterinarian within the state Department of Agriculture, and that day he came face-to-face with one of the more extreme reactions to a proposed new animal identification program that has Maine's small farmers and backyard hobbyists up in arms and has turned the state into a hotbed of resistance at the national level. Called IDME, the program is the Maine version of the federal National Animal Identification System (NAIS) that eventually — 2009 is the current target date — will require every owner of farm animals, from a large beef operation to a backyard chicken coop or even a 4-H goat, to identify and register each individual animal with the government and keep track of its movements.
Government officials say the program is necessary to be able to trace any animal's complete history within forty-eight hours of a disease outbreak. Many small farmers in Maine say the program will more likely push them out of business. In addition, they claim the program is intrusive and violates their privacy; if fully implemented, they argue, the government will know more about location and ownership of their farm animals than it does about firearms.
"Our primary interest is animal health," counters state veterinarian Hoenig. He notes that twelve of the last thirteen major human infections around the world began in animals, the feared arrival of avian flu in the United States being the most recent example. "Our point is that we could deal with [disease outbreaks] quickly and more reliably with the animal ID program in place," he notes. "Just this year a cow was found to be infected with BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease] in Alabama, and they can't identify where it came from. Apparently it's ten years old and has been on its current farm for barely a year. Luckily BSE isn't contagious, but if that animal had been carrying a highly contagious disease it would spread all over the place and we'd never be able to trace it."
As an example, if avian flu turned up in a new flock of chickens in Montville, the animal ID system would allow disease control specialists to know within forty-eight hours where the birds originated, the other chickens the infected birds had contact with, and where those birds were now located.
But Hoenig also admits that all twelve of the previous animal-linked human infections were handled quite well without an animal ID system in place. "We feel this [animal ID program] is one of the tools we need to do our jobs better and allow the least disruption of the economy as possible. Those of us in animal agriculture have realized for a long time that we had deficiencies in tracking animals."
Convincing animal owners and small farmers of that will be a challenge. The manure-pie attack on Hoenig and Shelley Doak, director of animal industry for the Maine Department of Agriculture, occurred toward the end of an hours-long public hearing in Ellsworth — one of the first on the subject ever held in Maine — in which a crowd of local farmers had almost unanimously criticized and rejected the tagging program. They called the proposal expensive, intrusive, unfair, ineffective, and insulting.
As the meeting was winding down, two masked people entered the hearing room. Each threw a pie tin full of cow manure mixed with wood shavings and then escaped in the confusion.
Several days later, the legislature's Agriculture Committee backed away from a bill that would have authorized the department to begin writing rules to implement the program. News accounts quoted committee members as saying the antagonistic public meetings and the manure-throwing incident showed that the state had to do a good deal more outreach and education among small farmers and animal owners before trying to win their cooperation in the complicated and highly controversial program.
Many farmers complain that they are being asked to buy a pig in a poke. "They're saying, 'Sign up now and we'll tell you what it means later,' " says Christine Alexander, who owns a small herd of goats in Columbia. Alexander manages an online discussion forum devoted to the Maine animal ID program, and she has helped organize a grassroots opposition movement that has caught state officials by surprise.
Alexander describes opposition among small farmers and animal owners as "pretty prevalent. The large animal organizations are supporting it because it helps them in the export market, but that doesn't really apply to small farms, and we're the ones who are going to be hurt by this."
Initially proposed some four years ago by an industry working group assembled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NAIS is a three-stage program. The first is premises registration, in which farmers and animal owners register their locations with the Maine Department of Agriculture using their 911 street addresses. Those without 911 addresses have to include their Global Positioning System coordinates in the registration. In the second stage, individual animals would receive visible tags or implanted radio frequency identification (RFID) computer chips with fifteen-digit ID numbers. The final stage involves a multi-industry tracking system that would follow each animal as it moves from farm to auction house to slaughter.
For now, participation in Maine's program is voluntary, with animal owners being asked only to register their location. It's a measure of the program's lack of acceptance that, as of this spring, the Maine Department of Agriculture has barely four hundred farms registered out of an estimated 20,000 or more livestock owners in Maine. "And the only reason we have that many," explains Judy Perry, the state's IDME coordinator, "is that we combed our databases for farms that were already registered for other programs."
One problem with gaining public acceptance is the vagueness of the details surrounding the proposal. Hoenig and Perry admit that there are many questions they can't answer because the technicalities haven't been worked out yet. For example, Hoenig notes that he keeps a small private flock of chickens, and he disposes of them by selling them at a livestock auction house. Would that be allowed in the future if the hens lacked individual identification? "That's a question I can't answer right now," he says.
But he admits that when the program is fully implemented and mandatory, farmers and animal producers who refuse to participate could "potentially" be barred from farmers markets, livestock auctions, county fairs, and any other gathering of farm animals or from selling animal products to the public.
"I wish he hadn't said that," sighs Russell Libby, executive director of the Unity-based Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). "That just reinforces everyone's fears." Libby opposes the program as it's currently structured, but he also gives Hoenig and the department high marks for "being very much on the side of helping farmers solve all these problems."
Opinion within MOFGA, Libby says, "ranges from 'we need this' to 'they'll take my animals away over my cold dead body.' There's clearly a sense that it's government intrusion." He recognizes the need for some form of tracking capability for animals going into interstate commerce, "but those systems are already in place," he points out.
Instead of investing in sophisticated computer systems and requiring farmers to pay two dollars or more per animal for RFID chips, Libby says, the state would be better off using the money to hire more state veterinarians and game wardens — who interact with farmers regularly on animal issues — to help keep lines of communication open. "I'd much rather see more effort going into communication than worrying about getting everyone's farm into a computer," he explains.
"I look around the town of Mount Vernon, where I live, and I see two dairy farms and one poultry farm," Libby notes, "and I'll bet all three are already in the department's database. But I can point to at least sixty other households with animals that would be required to be in this system. But small farmers and animal owners aren't going to get into radio frequency identification chips and register with the government. It's absurd and unworkable in any practical sense."
"We feel there ought to be some information sharing and otherwise just leave us alone," adds Brandon Wooley, president of the Maine Sheep Breeders Association. Sheep owners already participate in a voluntary registration system as part of the program to control the sheep disease scrapie. Adding another system, he says, is simply redundant.
"Besides," Wooley adds, "most sheep producers operate on a very low profit margin anyway. You take the cost of a RFID chip and the chip reader and the insertion device, and you're talking about adding another three to four dollars to your production cost on an animal that might net you no more than thirty or forty dollars anyway. That's 10 percent of your profit, and I haven't heard that the feds or the state plan to reimburse us for that."
"We're concerned about the national government mandating the state to implement this program without any funding beyond a few start-up grants," Christine Alexander explains. "What fees are farmers going to have to pay for enforcement and administration and everything else? No one seems to have any answers. We want something to protect consumers, but there are just too many unanswered questions."
Jon Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, describes his organization's support for the state program more as a way to short-circuit federal regulations. "The federal government programs are one-size-fits-all, and that means they're generally geared to the big [agribusiness] farms in the Midwest," he says. Several years ago Maine dairy farmers devised their own nutrient-management program to prevent farm-waste runoff problems that was accepted by the federal government, and Olson hopes the same approach can work for the animal ID program.
"We want the agriculture department to consider a number of exemptions for small farms," he notes. "We also have a number of questions that haven't been answered yet, such as who is going to pay for all this. The farmers shouldn't, that's for sure."
The Farm Bureau is advocating a go-slow approach to adopting the program. "We're encouraging the Maine Department of Agriculture to do a lot more outreach, particularly to small farmers, and eventually come up with rules that everybody can accept," Olson explains.
Olson says most commercial-scale farmers in Maine have known about the proposed regulations for well over a year because their national associations have kept them informed, but "small farmers are just now hearing about it." Indeed, Alexander says her small association of goat owners only became aware of the program late last year, and some animal owners still don't know about it.
Olson notes that the vehement opposition from some segments of the agricultural community has slowed the rush to implement the animal ID program in recent months. Maine ag department officials are planning a series of at least six public informational meetings around the state this year — "with additional security," Hoenig notes dryly — and there's a recognition that they need to involve more animal owners in the regulatory process.
"My sense is that it's going to take years," Wooley offers. "There's an awful lot that needs to be discussed first and a lot of questions that need to be answered. It's going to take a while to educate everybody."
"We heard the message loud and clear in Ellsworth," Hoenig adds.