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.
Hens make up about 19.5 million of the nearly 20 million animals that would be directly affected by the initiative.
While other states have enacted restrictions on veal and pig enclosures, California would be the first state to ban the chicken cages, said Jennifer Fearing, a spokeswoman for the "Yes" campaign and the chief economist for the Humane Society of the United States.
In the European Union, such cages will be banned in 2012, according to a University of California study.
The initiative's supporters include the Humane Society, the Center for Food Safety and the 5,000-member California Veterinary Medical Association.
Opponents include the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the state Farm Bureau Federation and several farm-related veterinary groups, including the American College of Poultry Veterinarians.
Those voters who get their idea of egg production mostly from Foghorn Leghorn cartoons would be astonished to see the real thing.
In an era of high-tech efficiency and fears of avian influenza, only a sliver of the nation's egg production occurs in the barnyard or the chicken coop. Nearly all egg-laying hens, both caged and cage-free, spend their lives inside large barns and warehouses. Bred for egg production, not meat, the hens typically live less than two years and are then disposed of.