I was in Nebraska last Tuesday to speak at the 2012 Commodity Classic, which is an annual gathering of many of the major farm groups in the Cornhusker state. Setting aside the unseasonably mild weather of a week ago (it was 61 degrees on Jan. 10th, which had to be a record), the state’s ag players have felt a chill in the past year because of concerns that a high-stakes, high visibility battle will be fought there between them and the Humane Society of the United States.
This is a song that’s been sung in a variety of other states, from California to Ohio. Emboldened animal rights groups like the Humane Society are pushing for state referenda – ballot initiatives that voters can decide – on a variety of animal care practices. In Nebraska, the stakes are high because of importance of agriculture to the state. While California produces more farm products than other states, ag is not the linchpin of the state’s overall economy the way that farming and livestock production is in Nebraska.
That’s why Gov. Dave Heineman has been so vocal on the issue. Whereas most governors have taken a low profile and not rhetorically battled with the animal rights crowd, the dynamic is different back in Nebraska because (as I was reminded driving across the state last week) the health of the state is almost entirely a function of how well farmers and ranchers are doing there. Given where commodity prices were in 2011, there were lots of happy faces and new (or at least late model) trucks and tractors in evidence.
While these types of debates are still mostly polemical, we had another reminder last week that wars of words can and sometimes do escalate into physical acts. Back in California, the Animal Liberation Front has claimed credit for torching some feed trucks at a cattle ranch in the Central Valley. It was a good year for most of agriculture last year, but there are battles brewing ahead.