This week's Thanksgiving feasts were not the product of Aristotelian spontaneous generation, nor did they come from friendly Indians bearing savory gifts. The turkey, cranberries and sweet potatoes came from real farms where real people labored.
In Sonoma County, people know that better than in many parts of America. We are close to the land, and we appreciate the agricultural industries that contribute so much to our local economy. Grapes and wine get the most attention, but Sonoma County has more than a dozen crops and livestock products that play a key role in our economy. Milk, poultry, beef, sheep, apples and more thrive in the valley's sunshine, clean water and fresh air.
If someone were ever to threaten the region's farms and ranches, people would want to know who was behind it. Likewise, if farm or livestock operations began to harm the surrounding community, neighbors would want to track down the source of the runoff or smell.
Not everyone is so interested in disclosure, however. The House of Representatives wants to keep people in the dark about agricultural abusers.
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the Farm Bill. The versions differ in some very significant ways that spark partisan debate. For example, the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate are far apart on how much to spend on supplemental nutrition programs (food stamps) for the needy.
Lost amid the high-profile bickering is another difference with far-reaching implications. The House wants to undercut Freedom of Information Act provisions that allow Americans to find out who is polluting, generating runoff or otherwise causing environmental problems. The House version of the bill would forbid the Environmental Protection Agency from divulging the names and addresses of farmers.
That might not sound so bad to some. After all, the National Security Agency notwithstanding, Americans still prize personal privacy. Farmers sometimes wind up the targets of overzealous environmental activists who use the law to advance their cause. Those family farmers deserve some protection.
The fact is they have it already. Existing FOIA exemptions protect personal information.
What the House wants is actually much more expansive. Under the guise of protecting small farmers, it would extend secrecy to owners, operators and employees of all agricultural operations. That includes not just family farmers but also corporations that own or operate industrial farms and concentrated animal feeding operations.
The current personal privacy protections apply to people, not corporations. Corporations might be people when it comes to campaign finance, but the "person" in "personal privacy" still matters for purposes of public records according to the Supreme Court.
Intensive agricultural uses can cause significant environmental, health and quality-of-life problems. If Congress puts a muzzle on the EPA, allowing the perpetrators to hide, accountability and monitoring become vastly more difficult. The bad actors get away with it.
Four members of the California congressional delegation — Reps. Jeff Denham, Ed Royce, Jim Costa and Gloria Negrete McLeod — are among the 41 representatives and senators who will negotiate a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill. They have a chance to champion government transparency by removing the House's secrecy provisions.
Family farmers already are safe. The corporate farmers don't deserve anonymity if and when they pollute.