Voters will decide in November on banning most of Sonoma County’s confined animal feeding operations. The ballot measure has led to outrage among county supervisors and pleas from farmers already struggling with drought, avian flu and new state animal welfare laws.

Agricultural researchers and county officials are warning the impacts could extend far beyond the dairy families targeted by animal rights activists, putting smaller operations and support industries at risk while setting California back on its climate goals.

After the organizers gathered enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot in March, the county board of supervisors reached out to several county departments and university researchers to assess the potential economic fallout. Last week they delivered their findings to the board.

The total impact would amount to nearly half a billion dollars, according to a report from the Agribusiness Institute at California State University, Chico. The workforce would lose about 1,400 jobs and more than $80 million in wages, while bumping up the county unemployment rate by 13%. The local Human Services Department calculated that retraining just 110 of the laid-off workers would cost $1.5 million.

County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith estimated his office would need at least $1.6 million from the taxpayer fund just to hire the additional staff to implement the law. He would need more to purchase equipment, build a public database on CAFOs, and coordinate with state and federal agencies to identify operations under the ban.

Stephanie LarsonStephanie Larson, UC Cooperative Extension

The impacts would ripple through the supply chain, hurting more than 80 additional businesses that provide feed, equipment and other products and services. The ordinance would apply to nearly three million animals, sending many out of state or to slaughter. Smaller producers outside the scope of the proposal would face higher operating costs, as the economies of scale are lost, according to Stephanie Larson, who directs the county’s UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) program.

Larson described the loss of valuable ecosystem services when the closures lead to cancelations of conservation easements. For every dollar invested in Williamson Act contracts, the county receives up to $3.47 in public benefits.

She disputed claims that the ban would benefit animals, the environment and the climate.

“The term CAFO has no indication of animal welfare or care, greenhouse gas emissions or management,” said Larson. “It simply classifies operations on the potential for water quality risk to ensure prevention of any impacts.”

The referendum does not define factory farming or industrial agriculture, terms she called superfluous. She pointed out that the proposal excludes horses and sheep and the county does not have commercial veal, swine or turkey operations, meaning most of the facilities targeted as industrial agriculture fall outside of the county.

Agriculture accounts for about 8% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, less than the national average, and it is in decline. Larson noted the valuable role of dairies in helping the state meet its goal of cutting methane emissions 40% by 2030. The vast majority of the dairies are certified organic and do not use antibiotics in herd management. Activist calls for banning CAFOs to clean up the water system failed to consider that dairies and other businesses are already highly regulated by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, she explained.

Dairy advisor Randi Black, who wrote UCCE’s analysis, added that “confining animals ensures we don't have runoff of manure going into our watersheds,” retaining it in a lagoon to instead spread over the land for crops. Otherwise, dairies would not be able to comply with water board regulations and would face penalties and closure.

Larson reasoned that the proposal would not lower property values as claimed, since the average home is worth $1.1 million and climbing.

The findings drew scorn for the referendum from the supervisors.

“This is really a movement to outlaw animal agriculture under the auspices of environmental management,” said Supervisor James Gore, who served as an assistant chief at USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service during the Obama administration. “If you're really looking at these laws, what we're going to do is kill farms and kill jobs. It really increases the opportunity for these lands to be transitioned into suburban, urban or other uses.”

Board chair David Rabbitt agreed, arguing that the “undeniable” and “overwhelming” data presented to the supervisors “shows the shortcomings in special interests manipulating the initiative process.” He believed the people signing the petitions “don't really understand what they're signing, don't bother reading it, or are swayed by big bold print.”

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The most vocal critic among the supervisors was Lynda Hopkins, who runs a small organic farm with her husband. She argued the unfunded mandate would force the county to pull money from paving roads, providing critical services and supplying language access programs.

“When I was approached multiple times at grocery stores by people trying to get me to sign this initiative, I was straight up lied to,” said Hopkins. “I attempted to correct the person who was lying to me, because I had actually read the ordinance, and they doubled down on their lies.”

Under the guise of animal welfare, the proposal would “sentence a whole bunch of beautiful dairy cows” to death, she added.

Supervisor Chris Coursey, who was mayor of Santa Rosa for two years before running for the county board, said he would continue to push for more sustainable and humane agricultural practices. Yet he acknowledged agriculture is “part of our identity” and that most in the county do not want it to go away.

Rabbitt, meanwhile, described the backlash over the referendum as “a call to action for the entire county to stand up" and vote against the proposal in the November election.

Dozens of farm advocates rallied behind the supervisors. In a rare moment for government hearings in California, they far outnumbered the environmental interests. Many were nervous, with shaking voices, and afraid of the activists.

“To have a target on our back daily is indescribable,” said dairy farmer Nicole Temple. “Anytime anything flies over our ranches, we’re wondering what they're doing. We're running outside looking. Hopefully one of these days we can walk out our door without having to wonder who's pulling up our driveway and why they're there.”

Egg farmer Mike Weber raised alarms about the practices of Direct Action Everywhere, the Berkeley-based activist group leading the referendum. Weber is still reeling from an avian flu outbreak last November that wiped out all 550,000 of his hens. He signed more than 100 paychecks the day before his testimony and said his company has struggled to maintain those salaries.

Weber believes the group had a role in spreading avian flu in the county. The activists had torn through fences to break into Weber’s farm and steal chickens, while putting tracking devices on trailers. Arrests were made and felony convictions handed down.

In April a CDFA investigation found it is plausible the group introduced the virus to poultry farms. The outbreak led to the deaths of 1.6 million birds in the county.

Andrew SmithAg Commissioner Andrew Smith

While the economic assessments depicted broad impacts from the proposal, the animal rights coalition claimed to be selectively targeting only the 21 largest CAFOs and charged that the board clerk had ignored evidence showing those facilities were excessively polluting and mistreating animals.

“With CAFOs operating in secrecy within the county for decades and the government at all levels failing to document or regulate them, the data is sparse,” said advocate Kristina Garfinkel, who attempted to minimize the reach of the proposal. “It's solely the large industrial anomalies that would be impacted.”

The allegations put a spotlight on George McClelland, whose family runs the county’s largest organic dairy, which his parents started in 1938.

“I sit here and I shake a little bit when I listen to their testimony,” said the elderly McClelland. “Yes, we milk a little over a thousand cows. We've never had a violation the whole time we've been in the dairy business. We purchased properties. We're in debt with American Ag Credit, but we need to have volume to make our payments.”

The first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi and the nation’s first organic creamery belong to Straus Family Creamery. The organic label shows the farm is dedicated to addressing animal welfare and water quality issues, explained Albert Straus.

“We've worked very hard to be an example of a farming and food system for the world,” said Straus, noting that his carbon-neutral practices have served as a model for European countries. “My creamery won't be in existence [if the proposal passes]. Our farms will have a hard time surviving.”

The dairy supplies all the housing for its employees as well.

Mike Martini, a Santa Rosa winemaker, warned that the county’s agricultural identity is at risk. At the close of the Gold Rush, the Bay Area was the breadbasket for Northern California, he explained.

“One by one they dropped off,” he said. “The counties of Contra Costa and Alameda decided to urbanize and industrialize, Santa Clara gave way to housing and to tech, Marin just basically closed their doors to everything. Napa Valley, while it's still highly agricultural, it's quite frankly more of a monoculture.”

He said Sonoma County “stands alone as a viable economic agricultural contributor to the local economy.”

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