Measure seeking to limit size of Sonoma County livestock and poultry farms qualifies for ballot

Many of the county’s best known dairy- and chicken-raising families, and the agricultural alliances that support them, describe the initiative as an existential threat to their livelihoods.|

A local initiative that would limit the size of livestock and poultry farms in Sonoma County has qualified for the ballot, setting up what is likely to be a heated and expensive political fight this year between its organizers and the region’s agricultural industry.

The Coalition to End Factory Farming, a collection of animal welfare advocates, environmentalists and small producers, turned in petitions bearing 37,183 signatures to the office of Deva Proto, Sonoma County’s clerk and registrar of voters, earlier this month.

Supporters of the initiative needed 19,746 total verified signatures to qualify for the ballot — or, alternatively, 652 verified signatures drawn from a sample size of 1,115 names. Using the second rubric, Proto and her staff verified 902 names, county election specialist Will Stephenson wrote on Proto’s behalf in a clerk’s certificate.

The registrar will now deliver the initiative to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, which will weigh several options.

The supervisors can choose to put the measure on the ballot without question, or to send it to staff for further economic analysis, said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board chair. Staff would then present their findings to the board during a public meeting. The supervisors are now inside a 30-day window to make their decision.

They have a third option as well. They could immediately enact an ordinance that would match or preempt the ballot proposal.

“I guarantee we’re not doing that,” Rabbitt said.

As representative of the dairy and poultry belt in southern Sonoma County, Rabbitt is a vocal supporter of those farms. He said he suspects the ballot measure’s organizers targeted Sonoma County as retribution after District Attorney Carla Rodriguez prosecuted several leaders of the Berkeley-based group Direct Action Everywhere — including a co-founder, Wayne Hsiung — for trespassing crimes.

“This is not solving a county problem. It’s creating a much, much bigger one,” Rabbitt said. “We have better things to do than work to create something that will put people out of work. And the equity of it — look at who works on those farms. They’ll be out of jobs.”

Kristina Garfinkel, a member of the Coalition to End Factory Farming, acknowledged that some of her colleagues are members of Direct Action Everywhere, an international network of animal welfare activists, but insisted this is a localized effort with grassroots support.

Their aim is to do away with large livestock and poultry farms known as “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs.

“Our key volunteers are all local,” Garfinkel said. “As a local myself, this is such an important issue. I’m from Santa Rosa. I drive by these CAFOs every day and smell the air. We do have support from other regional partners. CAFOs are a ubiquitous problem, so of course it will draw interest from other groups.”

The coalition will immediately begin an outreach effort that includes door knocking, phone banking and speaking to small groups, Garfinkel said.

One central issue in the measure is what, exactly, constitutes a factory farm. Campaigners behind the initiative allege that a few of the county’s largest animal operations fit that designation.

“Since the 1950s, industrial poultry (operations) have been able to outcompete local family farms by using cheap transport and supply chains, minimal amounts of poorly paid labor, and by externalizing environmental costs,” local farmer Roy Smith said in a news release circulated by the Coalition to End Factory Farming. “Cheap food has come at the cost of our local economy and rural landscape. The first step in rebuilding our food system, and making family farms viable again, is to level the playing field.”

But many of the county’s best known dairy- and chicken-raising families, and the agricultural alliances that support them, describe the initiative as an existential threat to their livelihoods.

“We are not surprised that the ballot initiative qualified, given the lies and misinformation that was touted to collect signatures,” Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, told The Press Democrat. “We’ve had several folks tell us that they signed a petition to save Sonoma County farmers and we’ve had to explain that their signature supported just the opposite.”

The initiative would phase out medium- and large-sized “concentrated agricultural feeding operations,” or CAFOs, in Sonoma County. The definition of a CAFO includes animals stabled or confined for 45 days or more in any 12-month period. The size of the farms that stand to be out of compliance would vary by animal and according to how they discharge manure.

Examples include farms with 700 or more dairy cattle, or 200+ dairy cattle if the facilities discharge manure directly into surface water; and 55,000 or more turkeys, or 16,500-plus turkeys if there is direct discharge into surface water. The calculation for chickens is more complex, with the lower threshold ranging from 9,000 to 125,000 depending on how waste is disposed of.

The organizers note that the definitions of CAFOs used in the ballot initiative come directly from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Local farmers insist they are misleading, and that none of Sonoma County’s dairies or egg farms are true factory farms.

According to organizers, Sonoma County will be the first in the nation to vote on a CAFO ban. The City of Berkeley will have a similar initiative on the ballot this year.

Of the 902 signatures that were not approved, 100 were from nonregistered voters. In 67 cases, the signer used a different address. In 28 instances, the signature didn’t match that found in voter registration documents. Eleven of those who signed the petition had registered too late, among other factors.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On X (Twitter) @Skinny_Post.

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