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Farmer to Farmer

HSUS agricultural councils build bonds with family farmers

by Karen E. Lange

Bill Miller has one big reason for supporting The HSUS as it works to improve conditions for chickens, pigs, and cows in Ohio: Joe Maxwell, a fellow farmer.

Bill Miller, of The HSUS's Agriculture Advisory Council for Ohio, grazes cows on his family farm. Zach Dobson/for The HSUS

Maxwell, HSUS vice president for outreach and engagement, raises hogs in Missouri and has fought to preserve independent agriculture there. That gave him instant credibility with Miller, vice president of the Ohio Farmers Union, which represents family farms.

“He is a major farmer who is dealing with an industry that has basically been taken over by two or three companies,” says Miller. “Part of the fight that all small farmers are having is that they’re being swallowed up and becoming less and less independent. They just don’t have the wherewithal to stand up to big ag.”

In recent years, as The HSUS pushed for an end to the extreme confinement of farm animals in Ohio, Miller heard many charges leveled against the organization. Some claimed it wanted to give animals the same rights as people. (As one farmer told Miller, “I’m not going to invite my cow into my living room.”)

Miller didn’t necessarily believe what people said, though, attributing the claims to “the rhetoric coming out of [an] industry that doesn’t want anybody to step on their toes about what they do with their animals.” And then meeting Maxwell won him over: In April, Miller became one of five founding members of the HSUS Agriculture Advisory Council for Ohio. Soon after, the union’s Miami Valley chapter, which covers the region in which Miller’s 160-acre organic farm lies, endorsed the council.

“I don’t know any small farmer who isn’t concerned for the welfare of their animals,” says Miller, who keeps 60 to 90 cows on his farm, where they graze on grass and fertilize fields. “A lot of the problems really arise with these factory farms.”

Watch a video about the HSUS's Ohio council

Ohio’s state agriculture council is the third to be formed in the last two years; a Nebraska council was created in 2011 and a Colorado council in 2012. An Iowa council will be announced by December. Comprising farmers and ranchers, these advisory boards help The HSUS improve state laws and regulations to better protect farm animals. They also link family farmers with consumers who want to refine their diets by purchasing higher welfare products.

In Ohio, The HSUS will use outreach events, workshops, and social media to inform its members about farmers who treat animals better, while also helping those farmers establish a cooperative to increase their competitiveness with factory farms in the marketplace, says John Dinon, state director of outreach and engagement.

In 2010, negotiations between The HSUS and industry groups such as the Ohio Farm Bureau led to an agreement to phase out some of the most extreme forms of confinement of breeding sows and veal calves, to prohibit transport of downer cows, to place a moratorium on new battery cage facilities for egg-laying hens, and to require humane euthanasia for downer cattle. The tail docking of dairy cows is also being phased out there. Now, Dinon and HSUS Ohio state director Karen Minton want to build on that progress by strengthening relationships with farmers.

“We spent a great deal of time talking about the things in agriculture we didn’t like; now we are shining a spotlight on good husbandry practices and the farmers who have found a better way forward,” says Minton. “We celebrate good stewardship of the land and animals. We want to help farmers who are struggling to survive.”

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