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In its Michigan test, the National Animal Identification System gets a rude reception from small farmers who say it invades their privacy
Editor's note: This is an updated version of a previously published column.
The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is a program initiated by the federal government to attach a radio frequency identification device (RFID) to each of the approximately 40 million cows, sheep, chickens, goats, pigs, horses, and other animals on 1.4 million U.S. farms, enabling regulators to quickly track and respond to mad cow disease, bioterrorism, and other such calamities.
The program is billed as "voluntary" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but that term is used about as loosely as a staff sergeant's call for volunteers. Already there is talk on some of the many blogs that oppose NAIS (such as www.nonais.org and http://henwhisperer.blogspot.com) that states failing to enforce NAIS could lose USDA funding for certain programs, and that farmers whose premises and animals aren't registered could encounter trouble should their animals be shipped out of state and thus be deemed part of "interstate commerce."
Trying to determine exactly what is happening around the country in response to the program is difficult, in part because the USDA has several times changed its timelines and rules (such as whether the program, which began in 2005, is voluntary or not), and the states have done likewise. Farmers have been further upset because they say some states have provided the USDA with information on individual farms collected under state disease prevention programs. They worry that the RFID tags can store large amounts of information, which can then be broadcast to special scanners or even to satellites, enabling government overseers to monitor the farmers via their animals. (The USDA says on its Web site that NAIS "is not a 'real-time' tracking system for animals," but rather a mechanism for establishing "animal movement records.")
Question of Attitude
The owners of small farms see the NAIS as the USDA's effort to reassure a global marketplace about the safety of the U.S. meat supply. Unfortunately, such reassurance is much more important to large "factory" farms that sell globally than to smaller farms, which tend to sell locally. Smaller farms increasingly sell their beef directly to consumers via farmers' markets and cooperatives (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/11/06, "What Entrepreneurs Need to Know" and BusinessWeek.com, 12/28/06, "Buying Food Fresh from the Farm"). Their customers know and trust the farmers, whose own animal-raising techniques and emphasis on cleanliness drastically reduce the chances of disease.
Michigan says it is intent on pushing ahead with NAIS because it is "soon to be implemented by USDA." Yet a number of other states, including Vermont, Texas, and Massachusetts, have placed animal registration on hold rather than confront farmers with attitudes similar to the Michigan farmers'.
Michigan's Department of Agriculture set a deadline of March 1 for the required registration of all the state's cattle in a test of the NAIS. The MDA sent letters out last February, with the idea that they'd give the cattle owners plenty of time to get ready. Three owners of small farms have been getting ready, but not in the exact way the MDA had in mind.
Bulls Don't Like It
Brad Clark of Dexter, Mich., has been busy selling off his herd of 15 beef cattle since he received his notice from the MDA last February. He's now down to two calves. "The letter they sent me said it's a done deal. No exceptions. I stewed awhile, and began selling (the cattle) in April." (See a copy of the MDA letter to Clark in the Related Items box at the top of the story.)
He decided tagging would be too much of a burden. "Cows lose tags like crazy. They get caught in tree limbs." Which means the animals need to be retagged. "You get an 1,800-pound bull that doesn't want to be tagged, it's an ordeal." This isn't a livelihood-threatening situation, since Clark is a part-time farmer who in recent years hasn't done much better than break even on selling beef to area residents (he earns his living as an electrician), but it marks the end of a 40-year era for him. "I'm going to miss it," he says.
Greg Niewendorp, the owner of a 160-acre farm in East Jordan, Mich., specializing in grass-fed beef, has also been busy preparing himself to resist the MDA's orders. Last week, during a local meeting organized by MDA and USDA, "I told them I was going to refuse to comply…and I stated my reasons." Among his reasons are the government's tactic of responding to a single illness by destroying entire herds of animals, the push toward "factory" agriculture that NAIS represents, and the infringement on his privacy by virtue of regulators being able to electronically track his animals.
Word of Mouth Only
He says he's attached tags to his animals in the past under state tuberculosis-eradication programs. However, "This year I refused to comply. My new calf crop born this summer will not have RFID tags." He has six new calves. He warns that any regulator who "comes on my property has to have a court order or a search warrant."
John Dutcher, the owner of an 80-acre farm in Raber, Mich., who raises cattle, hogs, and chickens, has been working since receiving the MDA letter to become ever more self-sustaining. For example, he slaughters his own cattle. "We sell everything we produce direct to people in the area, and it's all by word of mouth," he says. "Technically speaking, if I slaughter a cow, I am supposed to notify the MDA. I'm not going to do that…I guess I'm going to be busted someday because I'm not going to keep records."
Farmer rebellions aren't, of course, foreign to the U.S. The late 1700s saw Shays' Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, in which farmers struck out violently against perceived government injustices. If you read what's being written on the many anti-NAIS sites that have sprung up (www.nonais.org, www.farmandranchfreedom.org, and henwhisperer.blogspot.com are three) and speak with farmers like those in Michigan, you get the feeling that many small farms will disappear, and for those that remain, a modern-day rebellion isn't far off.
Follow events related to the government's effort to force small farms to register under NAIS at Gumpert's blog.