By Jerri Cook
There's a sign hanging on one of the walls at COUNTRYSIDE that says, "Wherever chickens are outlawed, only outlaws will have chickens." It's funny, but who knew it was prophetic? Get ready folks. There's a new rule coming. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) means to lock up those dangerous chickens and their homestead cohorts once and for all.
We all celebrated when the proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS) was withdrawn, but the party's over. There's a new rule on the horizon which is not only cumbersome to small homestead herds, it puts a heavy burden on those with backyard poultry flocks. The rule proposed by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, titled Traceability for Livestock Moving Interstate, is on its face useless, and a little digging reveals the real reason for such over-reaching regulation—to raise money to keep a bloated, bureaucratic agency alive. Get your shovels ready.
It's not like APHIS is lying to anyone. In fact, the truth is right there for all to see. Here's the reason for the proposed new rule: "Benefits of the proposed traceability system are for the most part potential benefits that rest on largely unknown probabilities of disease occurrence and reactions by domestic and foreign markets (pg. 3)." They have no idea what disease, if any, they might be protecting against. In the 67-page document explaining the rule, APHIS throws around references to BSE, otherwise known as mad cow disease, but other than that, they seem more worried about some disease, somewhere, someday, that might cause a problem for the domestic livestock markets.
If they really were concerned about tracing disease, APHIS would do something about the Johne's outbreak that is beyond epidemic in the United States. By some estimates, nearly 90% of herds are infected with this always fatal disease. The pathogen which causes Johne's in cows has been linked to serious disease in humans, including Crohn's disease which is rising at an alarming rate. Where is APHIS? This isn't some pretend unknown probability of disease. This is real.
Nor does APHIS claim to be protecting consumers. Just the opposite. They're protecting big banks and big government: The primary benefit of the proposed regulations would be the enhanced ability of the United States to regionalize and compartmentalize animal health issues more quickly, minimizing losses and enabling reestablishment of foreign and domestic market access with minimum delay in the wake of an animal disease event. None of this is news to homesteaders with cows, sheep, or goats. We've been through this before. But those of you with backyard flocks need to sit up and take notice. You're sitting ducks, and the shooting's about to begin.
Do you order your chicks from a hatchery? If so, you're about to pay more—a lot more. The new rule provides: Poultry moved interstate would be required to be accompanied by an ICVI (interstate certificate of veterinary inspection) unless they are from a flock participating in the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) and are accompanied by the documentation required under the NPIP regulations or they are moved directly to a recognized slaughtering establishment (pg. 30). In addition to the required paperwork, the proposed rule also requires flocks not eligible for group identification (backyard and homestead flocks) to be banded individually before they cross a border, this includes day-old chicks shipped from out-of-state hatcheries. Even if the chicks never leave the homestead of the person who ordered them, the bands must be on their legs and remain there for the life of the bird. So, what happens if someone fails to comply? The proposed regulation specifically cites Title VII, Section 8313 of the US Code. First, there are the criminal penalties for non-compliance:
Distribution or sale
A person that knowingly imports, enters, exports, or moves any animal or article, for distribution or sale, in violation of this chapter, shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
On the second and any subsequent conviction of a person of a violation of this chapter under paragraph (1), the person shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.
Then, there are the civil penalties:
Except as provided in section 8309(d) of this title, any person that violates this chapter, or that forges, counterfeits, or, without authority from the Secretary, uses, alters, defaces, or destroys any certificate, permit, or other document provided under this chapter may, after notice and opportunity for a hearing on the record, be assessed a civil penalty by the Secretary that does not exceed the greater of - (i) $50,000 in the case of any individual, except that the civil penalty may not exceed $1,000 in the case of an initial violation of this chapter by an individual moving regulated articles not for monetary gain; (ii) $250,000 in the case of any other person for each violation; (iii) for all violations adjudicated in a single proceeding - (iv) $500,000 if the violations do not include a willful violation; or (v) $1,000,000 if the violations include one or more willful violations. Twice the gross gain or gross loss for any violation or forgery, counterfeiting, or unauthorized use, alteration, defacing or destruction of a certificate, permit, or other document provided under this chapter that results in the person's deriving pecuniary gain or causing pecuniary loss to another person.
Failure to band a chicken could result in fines, imprisonment and possible confiscation of every chick at the hatchery or every animal on the homestead where un-banded poultry is found.
In case you haven't already figured it out, these government-approved, individually sealed and numbered leg bands aren't free. But APHIS seems unconcerned about cost. They openly acknowledge they don't have a clue how much this new regulation will cost the nation's small-scale poultry producers and independent hatcheries (pg. 31). APHIS does offer a few convoluted figures on how much the rule will cost producers overall—somewhere around $34 million a year. Not to worry though, the taxpayer will be picking up any additional costs. The 2012 budget calls for at least $3 million of taxpayer funds to be set aside for this program to offset the cost of metal ear tags. No money has been set aside to help independent hatcheries and small flock owners purchase leg bands, not one dime.
I've been accused of portraying government employees as academics who sit around dreaming up new regulations at the taxpayer's expense. And after reading this proposed traceability rule, I stand firmly behind my assertions, at least where the USDA and its agencies are concerned. This is nothing more than regulation for the sake of regulation.
So, where does that leave us? Once again, independent family farmers are staring down the barrel of government regulation. Thanks to overwhelming organizing and persistent resistance, NAIS went down in flames. But as often happens when one bad piece of regulation is defeated, another has appeared in its place. Yes, immediate action is needed. Calls to Congressmen must be made, but then what? Are we going to sit around and wait for the next regulation to come at us? And it will come. We all know it for a fact. There is, however, a way to stop such assaults on small-scale producers and homesteaders once and for all.
Have you ever asked the question, "who makes this stuff up?" The answer is always one regulatory agency or the other, but that's not the case. Federal regulators don't make the laws. Congress does, and then the laws are published in the United States Code, a gargantuan tome, legendary in its complexity (http://uscode.house.gov/lawrevisioncounsel.shtml). The Code is a codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States. It is over 200,000 pages long, and after the update scheduled in 2012, we can be assured it will reflect more bloated government edicts than ever before. Fortunately for us, we're only concerned with Title VII of the Code—the section that gives the Secretary of Agriculture the power to make criminals out of small-scale family farmers and homesteaders. It needs to be changed, and sooner rather than later.
It may seem like a massive challenge, but in reality it's not. No one is suggesting a complete overhaul of Title VII; just a little tweaking will do the trick. Right now, the Secretary of Agriculture has full control of all the nation's producers—those who have hundreds, sometimes, thousands of animals as well of those of us with small, managed herds and flocks. The purpose of Title VII was to allow the federal government to regulate the production and trade of corporate agriculture production facilities. Title VII was never meant to allow federal control of traditional family farmers and homesteaders who produce, market and sell locally. Yet, we find ourselves squarely under the regulator's thumb. Once again, if you give the government an inch, it'll take a mile.
It's time for the language to be changed to reflect the realities of the evolving models of agriculture, which are trending smaller and more sustainable. Corporate agri-business needs far more regulating than small-producers. This is so by the government's own admission. A few years ago we applied for a government-funded program that helped to fund improvements to on-farm manure storage, only to be turned down because our 20-cow organic farm wasn't a big enough threat to the environment to warrant assistance with manure management. So, if we're not a threat, why should the federal government bother with us at all? The answer is plain. It shouldn't. Yet it does.
To argue that corporate agriculture is in any way similar to sustainable homestead producers is to kick reason right in the head.
The only way to break the stranglehold the Secretary of Agriculture has on small farms is to insist on a return to federalism. The States are the proper regulators of small independent farmers who don't participate in the rat-race known as corporate agriculture. If the small producer isn't shipping anything across state lines, then the federal government shouldn't be able to enforce regulations that hamstring locally sustainable agriculture. Similarly, if a hatchery is shipping a few dozen meat birds to a homestead in Wisconsin where they are processed and distributed as part of a local in-state CSA, it is the State of Wisconsin's responsibility to regulate that sale of chicks. If, however, a confined-animal feeding operation (CAFO) receives thousands of day-old chicks which will be raised, butchered, and distributed nationally or internationally, then by all means, let the Secretary of Agriculture regulate away. That's what Title VII was intended for.
So, how do we persuade Congress to add an exemption to Title VII specifically for independent, local producers with no ties to big banks or big corporations? Do we have to occupy somewhere or parade around with a sign? Thankfully, no.
This spring, while we're sitting around waiting for the ground to thaw and the grass to start growing, we might just have time to write a letter to Congress or to our local paper pointing out the problems with Title VII. A simple, handwritten letter sent through the United States Post Office will do the trick. Studies have shown that people are more likely to read a handwritten note than a typed one. A handwritten note to a local representative or advocacy group might be all that's needed to get the ball rolling. It's time for homestead producers to go on the offensive instead of reacting to every rogue piece of regulation purporting to guard against some imaginary "event" that might occur. Write a letter. Change the rules. The outlaw chicken you save could be your own.