Close to Home: Animal activists target Sonoma County poultry farms and dairies

A group responsible for trespassing at local farms is seeking signatures for an initiative that could put farmers out of business.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Recent news reports documenting the criminal trial of Wayne Hsiung — the Berkeley man whose band of animal rights activists stormed Petaluma poultry farms in 2018 and 2019 seeking to “liberate” birds and shut down operations — have focused public attention on a little-known group seeking radical change.

Hsiung is co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, which uses such brazenly disruptive tactics in hopes of triggering a ban on animal farming practices.

John Burns
John Burns

Following the local protests, dozens of group members were arrested and charged with trespassing on farms and illegally entering production facilities. Nearly all those arrested have reached plea deals or had criminal charges dismissed. But Hsiung is facing felony counts of conspiracy and trespassing in Sonoma County Superior Court.

While the court case and accompanying publicity has accurately described incursions at the duck farm and Sunrise Egg Farm, most people are unaware of the steady progress these activists have made gathering signatures necessary to qualify a ballot initiative that, if passed, would result in closure of most animal husbandry operations in Sonoma County.

According to Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the proposed law, titled “Prohibition on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” would effectively shutter “99% of Sonoma County dairies and all county poultry operations.”

To survive, Ghirardelli says dairy farmers would need to “drastically change their operations to milk less cows. This would ultimately result in dairies going out of business because a smaller model would not be sustainable.”

The ordinance, she says, would trigger similarly overwhelming pressures on local poultry farms, including the two remaining egg farms in Petaluma, a community once called “the egg basket of the world.”

Local milk processors like Clover Sonoma and Straus Family Creamery would also face severe hardships, says Ghirardelli, and would be forced to source milk outside the area to stay in business.

The negative economic ramifications to the county’s agricultural industry would be extensive, she says, noting the law would apply to certified organic farms, even those that raise sheep for wool production.

The threat is quite real. According to the Coalition to End Factory Farming website operated by DxE, the group has already secured 15,000 signatures in advance of a March 5 deadline to qualify the measure for the November 2024 ballot. To secure a place on the ballot, sponsors need 19,746 verified signatures of registered Sonoma County voters.

Ghirardelli says the group is using false claims, misinformation and scare tactics to obtain signatures. As an example, she cites a claim on the group’s website that local dairies “discharge toxic manure directly into public waterways including protected wetlands.”

“That’s not true,” says Ghirardelli, noting that dairy farms must fully comply with California’s stringent state water quality control standards.

To elicit donations and volunteers for its campaign, DxE has posted aerial video footage, cleverly accompanied by somber piano music, that zeros in on a dead cow at a Sonoma dairy. But Ghirardelli says that when cows die, as they sometimes do, their bodies are typically set aside for pickup, transport and proper disposal.

Another video on the website shows some chickens with missing feathers, implying the birds have been mistreated. But Ghirardelli says chickens regularly shed, or molt, their feathers to make way for new ones.

There is nothing incriminating in the videos, says Ghirardelli. But they do give uninitiated viewers the distinct impression that Sonoma County farmers are abusing their animals.

Some people who signed the DxE petition now say they were misled and regret having given support to the initiative.

One signer told me she was encouraged to sign the petition last month in downtown Petaluma. The woman, who declined to have her name published, said she was told the measure was aimed at regulating “factory farms.” She mistakenly assumed the businesses affected were giant corporate farm operations in the Midwest and was never told the proposed law would exclusively target Sonoma County’s family farms.

After learning the truth from a friend who works at the local office of the UC Cooperative Extension, the woman called the county registrar of voters and is seeking to have her name removed from the petition.

The Farm Bureau’s Ghirardelli says she’s aware of many people in the same position and laments the duplicitous tactics employed by DxE activists to trick people into signing their petition.

So, if DxE is primarily an East Bay organization, why is it working so hard to dupe Sonoma County residents into banning milk and egg production here?

The short answer: Hsiung and his idealistic followers believe we have enough progressive voters to make Sonoma County the first in the nation to formally outlaw animal agriculture.

According to DxE’s detailed “40 Year Roadmap to Animal Liberation,” getting a single county to adopt such a policy aligns with its long-range strategy to end all animal farming in the United States and adopt a federal “Animal Bill of Rights” granting legal “personhood” to every American farm animal.

Local dairy and poultry farmers struggle daily against enormous economic headwinds ranging from megadroughts, fires and increasingly erratic weather conditions triggered by climate change to skyrocketing production and regulatory costs and the generally high cost of living in Sonoma County. For many farms, profit margins are paper thin, and the next generation of farmers is, with the exception of those cultivating wine grapes, mostly moving on.

Should the DxE initiative qualify for the ballot, farmers here will have to devote time, money and energy to educating their neighbors on how it would kill their businesses.

For generations, Sonoma County agricultural producers have provided us with a diverse range of fresh food products including eggs, meats and a wide variety of milk products while helping avoid urban sprawl, retaining scenic beauty and our rural character and protecting biological diversity and wildlife habitat.

But if people keep signing the DxE petitions without reading the fine print, that may be in jeopardy.

John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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