With the recent increase in animal activist demonstrations, unwelcome incursions and confrontations with private property owners, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau organized a comprehensive day-long workshop on October 29 at Shone Farm to help those engaged in animal agriculture to develop effective strategies to meet this growing threat.
“In the last few months property rights we hold dear have been threatened,” said Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi at the opening of the workshop attended by more than 70 participants. “These protests are illegal, disruptive and must be stopped.”
Farm Bureau President Steve Dutton welcomed attendees saying this is one of the most important topics we need to address, and that we must be ready and prepared.
They referred to the series of mass demonstrations held at McCoy’s Poultry Services and Sunrise Farms organized by the Bay Area chapter of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) between May and October.
District 2 County Supervisor David Rabbitt said farms add to the quality of life. “It’s tough enough being a farmer today and this is just one more thing to think about. Farmers must be prepared, have a plan and know how to implement it. While peaceful demonstrations are fine, criminal acts are not. These activists crossed the line.”
He said the district attorney filed charges against several protestors Friday, October 26 that included both misdemeanors and felonies. In the past, demonstrators were often just arrested, reprimanded and/or fined and then released.
With a growing need to secure animal agriculture’s future by protecting farms against activist threats, Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of communications with the national Animal Agriculture Alliance outlined several ways farmers can learn how to address this issue.
“Animal rights activists don’t play fair at protest events. The future of animal agriculture is under attack from activist groups who want to end the industry by targeting consumers, customers, policy makers and investors. The animal rights movement is well organized, trained and funded with an estimated $500 million annually.”
She said these organizations often post ads looking for undercover investigators willing to infiltrate farms as hired workers, so they can collect data and take pictures with hidden cameras allegedly showing animal cruelty and abuse. They are resorting to break-ins to liberate animals from environmentally clean and sanitized buildings without wearing masks or protective clothing, as well as conducting “Mass Open Rescues” at protests and vigils. Training sessions are held for more rescues and additional incidents are being planned.
After DxE’s Animal Liberation Conference on May 29, some 500 activists presented a misleading and so-called “legal opinion” to gain access and then stormed a Petaluma egg farm and live-streamed three-hours of YouTube video. While there, they stole 37 birds and trashed the farm with litter and human waste before forty were arrested.
These well-timed demonstrations were intended to influence the November 7 mid-term election ballot item for Proposition 12 requiring additional animal rights and protections. This measure was approved by voters.
What Can We Do?
Thompson-Weeman said farmers can begin to protect themselves by “YouTube proofing” their operations. This includes implementing science-based animal care and environmental policies; by seeking advice from experts; striving for continuous improvement, and by establishing a rigorous hiring process. It is important to conduct self-audits and to conduct third-party audits to maintain credibility.
She said a good way to do this is by becoming part of a professional culture focused on animal welfare, such as the one developed by Cooper Farms CARES (Comprehensive Animal Raising and Environmental Systems). Cooper Farms, based in Van Wert, Ohio, has its key staff certified by the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO) and has a Certified Livestock Management staff trained by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. They also utilize certified, third-party animal care specialists to audit its policies and procedures to ensure their animals are receiving the best care and living conditions.
Basics of Farm Security
Having “no trespassing” and “biosecurity” signs visible at every point of access is critical, viewable from public roads, along property fences every third of a mile, on buildings, and also to be seen from trails or dirt roads that can lead to farm property. Gates and fences should be in place around farmland and animal buildings.
Locks are important, especially those that cannot easily be compromised or broken. Motion-sensor lighting should be installed, along with visible cameras that can record the presence of unauthorized personnel or those committing burglaries.
Reach out and proactively connect with local law enforcement. Let them know any concerns you have and ask for advice and a protocol to follow when protestors come to your land.
Carefully evaluate all inquiries and information requests you receive. If you respond, reply in writing and ask for references and identity verification. Don’t be afraid to ask for credentials. Do not just take them at their word – verify their claims with proper contacts. In this process, gather as much information about them as possible.
When hiring, use a written application form for all employees and require a signature. Work with local legal counsel to ensure compliance with federal and state laws. At the same time, watch for any red flags – and trust your intuition. Always check references.
Planning for a Crisis
Have a plan in place for handling activist issues before demonstrators arrive. Create a Crisis Response Team including the CEO, communications, HR, veterinarian, and others in the supply chain. Have law enforcement and legal counsel contact information readily available.
Think through possible scenarios that may develop and formulate suggested responses. Also, draft media statements that can present your position(s) on key topics.
To prepare for activist events, have a “Principles of Animal Care” statement that visitors must read and sign (see an example of this associated with the Cooper Farms CARES model www.cooperfarms.com/environmentalcommunity/animalcare.aspx). Assign spokespersons and prepare positive/proactive messaging about your operations, animal safeguards, etc. Also contact law enforcement and local officials to raise awareness of potential activist disruptions.
When Protestors Arrive
Contact law enforcement immediately. Know your rights – what is private versus public property, for example. Do not engage with activities, and make sure neighbors, employees and family members know to ignore them. Make an effort to “keep your cool” if you are confronted. Remember, you are probably being recorded or “live-streamed” for posting on social media. Have someone designated to watch the livestream. Make your own recordings and take photos of vehicles (including makes/models/colors and license plate numbers).
What to do Now
Political Analyst Brian Sobel, principal and founder of Sobel Communications, said domestic terrorists have changed methods. “They are smart, educated and highly motivated. They consider ‘winning’ to mean putting farms raising animals out of business. They want to shut you down and don’t respect your way of life. Cell phones and social media have changed the rules of the game.”
He also said there is a critical need to advocate for what the farm community produces. “The public enjoys eating in restaurants, eating eggs, meat and milk but we take this for granted. Educating the public through on-site tours, plus visits from school groups and political leaders, is a must.”
Mike Weber, a partner in Sunrise Farms of Petaluma, said that his operation has animal health audits done by an independent firm. “We have 50 audits a year, almost one a week. The key is how to prepare for protesters.”
He said the first thing to do is always run a clean operation. “The community was behind us knowing that we did nothing wrong. We also need to talk to people that are not in Ag circles, and secure our property with multiple layers of fencing, get some dogs and have some employees live on the property if possible. We can’t have people illegally on our private land. These incursions must end. In short, we must defend ourselves. I’m glad the Farm Bureau put this conference together.”