On Tuesday, we travelled to Jefferson City, MO to attend a USDA public hearing on the proposed National Animal Identification System. To put it as briefly as possible, NAIS would establish a Federal registry of farms and farm animals, implemented through electronic tags attached to each animal (whether poultry, swine, hooved, etc.), and requiring farmers to report all births, deaths, and movements of such animals. There are few exceptions.
I don’t want to go any deeper into NAIS policy in this post beyond stating that I think it’s an incredibly foolish, ineffective, offensive, and economically dangerous policy. If you’re interested in more than that, Google will lead you to a massive amount of pro and con writing about this very controversial issue. It’s worth noting that there is lots of misinformation out there, so anyone interested should peruse the USDA’s official NAIS site as a balance. There’s enough there to frighten any local foods advocate even without reading from the opposition. I just want to describe our experience in attempting to take part in this “listening session”, one of several USDA has scheduled around the country to collect public comment.
We had heard about this session through various grapevines and online reports, and determined that it was worth our while to go. It was quite hard to find specific information about the program on the USDA’s NAIS website, which has all sorts of pro-NAIS information but doesn’t exactly welcome opponents. The best we could find was a statement that the session would run from 9am to 4pm, during which the public could show up and make statements for the record. So we figured we’d get some other things done, then head down midday to allow plenty of time to stand in line.
We arrived at the conference center around 11:30, and immediately ran into folks we knew. “Are you here to comment?” we were asked. Yep. “Well, better hurry inside, the comment period only runs until noon.” So we hustled in to find out that public comments were scheduled for 9-12, with an hour and a half lunch break followed by a few hours of “breakout sessions” designed to facilitate discussions on appropriate implementation of NAIS. Then we were told that due to the overwhelming response and crowd, they were extending the comment period to 1pm. So I asked for a lottery ticket (they were drawing speakers from the crowd by lottery number) and headed inside.
The setup was a large ballroom, packed to the gills with people, most in overall, ballcaps, dresses, and otherwise clearly rural attire. There was a podium at the front, with a line of stony-faced USDA officials sitting facing it (in front of the crowd). The mood was restive and angry, with anti-NAIS shirts and signs common. You could almost feel the crackling energy. Speaker after speaker strode to the microphone to angrily, wistfully, and/or thoroughly denounce the USDA, and the Federal government. They argued the potential for NAIS to ruin small family farms in favor of industrial agriculture, that it was a huge overreach of Federal power into citizen’s rights, that it wouldn’t work as a disease prevention program, and that the technology wouldn’t even work effectively. I certainly don’t see how a government that can’t even track illegal immigrants or manage defense contracting expects to effectively track every farm animal in the country. Even in the 90 minutes I was there, I heard speakers from around Missouri and several neighboring states, and the AP reported that at least five states were represented.
I eagerly waited for my number to be called; most speakers were middle-aged and older, with lifetimes in agriculture, and I wanted a chance to speak as a young entreprenurial farmer who chose this life and this business. When 1:00 came, my number was one of many tickets left to be drawn, but the comment period was shut down (I went up and looked to see how many were left, and whether my matching number was even there; it was). I told the moderator how displeased we were to not have had proper information about the format of the event; we would have shown up sooner if we’d known how it was set up. She gave me a glazed-look “I’m so sorry you didn’t get to speak” and walked away. Several other attendees overheard and told me that the USDA folks had done a terrible job of moderating the morning, allowing multiple people to ramble on well past their alloted 3 minutes each, despite multiple protests from the crowd.
And in fairness, there was a lot of rambling, and a lot of off-topic ranting. Something like this draws opponents from a wide political spectrum, and there were some pretty fringe comments going around. I don’t think these off-topic comments helped the rational case against NAIS any, and I hope the USDA can filter the relevent anger from the latent vitriol. But the core message I took away from this was that a huge crowd of grassroots farmers, of all types and from multiple states, had taken the time from their farms and driven to central Missouri to express their fear and disgust about what the USDA is trying to do. It was a powerful experience, and I hope similar patterns will emerge at every one of these hearings (I suspect they will).
We didn’t stay for the afternoon sessions, as they were described as focusing on how to implement NAIS, and I have no input on that. I do not think it can be implemented practically or ethically, and will not cooperate in attempting to sugarcoat it. We’ll submit our comments online to USDA, and will post them here.
Thought that story might be of interest to some folks.