Standing in a huge Petaluma warehouse with 135,000 chickens, Arnie Riebli pointed to the white leghorns standing in columns of nearby cages and asked, "Are these birds uncomfortable? I say, 'No.'"
That is the central question of Proposition 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot. The measure sharply divides farmers like Riebli, who say the proposed constitutional amendment would decimate the California egg industry, and animal supporters, who believe chicken cages are inhumane devices.
In suburban Sonoma County with its deep agricultural roots, the state initiative represents an election day battle between the producers of inexpensive food and mostly city-bred activists who believe that animal rights are being violated.
"We're closer to the animals. We see them in the fields. We see them on the farms," Hope Bohanec, the county's Prop. 2 volunteer coordinator, said of residents here. "We understand that they deserve basic humane treatment."
Supporters say they gathered 15,000 signatures countywide to place the initiative on the ballot -- three times their goal based on the county's population.
While most voters are still becoming familiar with Prop. 2, a Field poll last month found that respondents statewide favored the initiative by 63 percent to 24 percent.
Riebli, whose Petaluma-based Sunrise Farms produces 1 million eggs a day, is showing off his facilities of caged and cage-free birds to schoolteachers, editorial writers and others.
He said that both methods involve humane ways of producing eggs, but that eliminating cages would drive up costs. If the initiative passes, he argued, "the egg industry as you know it will be gone."
Riebli is leading a egg-producing revival in a region where Petaluma once called itself the Egg Capital of the World. County agriculture officials note that in an area with 11 egg producers, most concentrating on niche markets, production grew by 143 percent last year, a jump attributed to Riebli consolidating his operations from four counties to Sonoma only.
The initiative, which would take effect in 2015, prohibits farmers from confining egg-laying hens, veal calves and pregnant pigs in ways that prevent them from standing up, turning around or extending their limbs without touching the sides of an enclosure or another animal.