Letter from Langdon: Bedfellows


By Richard Oswald
Some people may think it’s strange that the Nebraska Farmers Union and the Humane Society of the United States have found some areas of agreement. Not me.

When I was a kid growing up on the big river bottom I had a couple of pets that fought like you might expect. Chip the Chesapeake retriever and Tom the barn cat never saw eye to eye at feeding time.

To the victor went the leftovers.

But on cold winter nights, adversaries became allies as cat curled up with dog to ward off the chill with a warm bargain.

My family called them strange bedfellows.

Shakespeare borrowed bedfellows from a Greek tragedy to describe people who set aside their differences toward a common goal. Whether in midsummer’s dreams, cold Missouri winters, or on Wall Street, we can all occasionally do that.

Sometimes that’s life; Strange–but true.

Sharp claws, pointy teeth and the wounds they’ve caused can be overlooked, even justified, when memories are short and need is great. We see it all the time in politics, as candidates decide whether to bite and claw or just shack up together. But we also see it in the country as cats and dogs join forces against the cold…or a foe.

In just this kind of strange twist, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is now seen as a savior by some family livestock farms battling big farms and corporations for market share and profits. They hope that partnering with an animal welfare charity will highlight better living conditions for livestock on family farms.

It’s an interesting story. Confrontation-minded HSUS once passed animal welfare laws in a half dozen states, such as Ohio, that drove farmers crazy. Then the Humane Society waded in west of the Mississippi and met its Water loo in Missouri. The HSUS helped pass a ballot initiative targeting dog breeders, thanks to votes in Kansas City and St Louis. Out in rural Missouri HSUS lost 2 to 1.

That’s when the Republican General Assembly joined forces with the Democratic governor to rewrite what they called the “puppy mill bill.”

So it raised a few eyebrows when Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen and a former Missouri Lieutenant Governor, Joe Maxwell, agreed to work with HSUS toward a common goal.

Maxwell, with farm roots four generations deep, says corporate dominated agriculture is putting guys like him out of business. Hansen agrees. And both watched proposed federal rules guaranteeing competitive livestock markets fail under corporate opposition (aided by a Congress and an administration unwilling to fight for them).

Hansen and Maxwell came to the conclusion that family farmers and the HSUS might form a common bond. They figured that farmers with humane livestock practices have something to offer animal welfare conscious consumers who eat meat but also support work done by groups like HSUS.

Livestock raised according to HSUS-approved standards could bring higher prices and profit to the farm. So, Nebraska Farmers Union and the HSUS made a pact. They agreed to work together and HSUS agreed not to pursue ballot initiatives in Nebraska.

When the news came out it caused a collective gasp from corporate-producer-government alliances. What’s the world coming to?

Seems pretty clear to me.

Populist farmers and ranchers are searching for ways to defend themselves against packer-producer groups and multi-nationals (Cargill, JBS, Tyson, Smithfield, National Cattleman’s Beef Assn., National Pork Producers, etc.) who ultimately succeeded in defeating proposed marketing rules against monopolies (the ones proposed by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, GIPSA) and Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), that offered even more market transparency.

So they’re forced into new alliances of their own. That’s because, baby, it’s cold outside when family farmers have to buck corporate dominated markets.

If crawling under the covers with HSUS is still hard to understand, it helps to remember that with the average farmer’s age hovering around 57 years, we’ve all seen neighbors frozen out of making a living. As farmers’ age increases, farm numbers dwindle. Those of us who remain can either blame the establishment for falling farm numbers or credit it to our personal survival.

Most, like me, can remember raising livestock with access to many markets. Today those markets are all but gone.

Now, the number of cattle in the U.S. is on the decline and hogs in Missouri are raised for the most part in corporate confinement. Changes to hog confinement production practices are part of what HSUS won in Ohio. Those rules are also what some farmers
feared in Missouri if the HSUS victory against dog breeders were allowed to stand and expand into livestock.

HSUS failed to make the same alliances in Missouri that helped them win in other more urban states. The Humane Society figured that out the hard way, saw its mistake, and sought closer ties to aggies. So the two sides talked.

In return for talking to HSUS, people like Maxwell and Hansen hope to gain access to better-informed consumers, raise the price they are paid for their product and head off the corporate threat.

They feel that’s about the only avenue left open to them now that Wall Street owns Main Street and corporate political contributions are on the rise.

Besides, it’s not likely that big corporate livestock could ever gain the trust of consumer elites, at least not the way an animal rights organization could. Sure, not everyone gives much thought to where bacon comes from. But plenty do. Knowing that the food
animals we eat are raised in kindly ways is a marketing advantage for small local farms.

It’s conceivable that HSUS could come up with a humanely-raised label for livestock that really is raised humanely. That would send a chill down the spine of concentrated animal agriculture because it would shine a light on them and everything they do, raising even more consumer awareness.

On the other hand HSUS would need to build a few strong relationships and some trust in farm country. That would mean making changes in the way HSUS does business.

The battle in Missouri continues with both sides in a struggle over ballot initiatives and overturning majority votes. One Missouri legislator calls ballot initiatives like those HSUS uses dangerous because they threaten to change Missouri from a representative form of government to full democracy.

Hansen has helped Nebraska avoid a possibility of something similar simply by opening a dialogue and convincing HSUS not to attempt ballot initiatives there. At least not in the near future.

Strange bedfellows, maybe, and sleeping with one eye open for sure.

Given higher food prices and the way agricultural survivors have been known to adapt, down the road we could see more arrangements between animal rights groups and animal agriculture willing to take a chance.

After all, stranger things have happened.RO

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation farmer in northwest Missouri, president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a regular Yonder contributor.