Florida's pig amendment puts pressure on farmers -- in other states

By Jerry W. Jackson
Florida Correspondent, Orlando Sun-Sentinal

November 9 2002

Florida is not a big pork-producing state, but passage of a constitutional amendment this week prohibiting pregnant sows from being housed in tiny stalls is reverberating across the country.

Industry experts said Friday that pressure is building on farmers to change the way they handle farm animals of all types, and Florida's landmark amendment adds to the momentum.

"Concern over how animals are raised is increasing across a broad spectrum of the population," said Ed Pajor, assistant professor of animal sciences at Purdue University in Indiana, a major pork state.

Pajor predicts that the cramped gestation "crates" will be phased out nationwide in coming years, once pork prices improve and farmers are able to invest in newer systems.

"Florida serves as a model for how to do this in other states," Pajor said of the vote to ban the stalls.

Fifteen other states also allow voters to amend their constitutions. Others allow ballot initiatives to enact laws but not alter the constitution, a framework document historically used to enshrine basic rights.

Only two Florida hog farms used the stalls that confine pregnant sows. But one of the two has already shut down and the last one is phasing out his business, said Rod Hemphill, spokesman for the Florida Farm Bureau in Gainesville.

"It's because of low prices, not the amendment," Hemphill said. The last farmer in Florida to use the crates, Steve Basford, operates a relatively small hog farm just west of Tallahassee. He could not be reached Friday for comment.

The gestation crates are commonplace elsewhere in the country, Pajor said, because they have been favored by farmers and supported by farm veterinarians as a safe way to keep pregnant hogs from fighting and getting injured, which can cause them to abort the fetus. Left to themselves, hogs fight to establish social standing, or pecking order. The more dominant ones end up with more food, while the others end up weaker and smaller.

But animal-rights activists who ran the successful Florida campaign found plenty of support from the general public by casting the issue as one of animal cruelty.

The crates are not wide enough for the sows to turn around in, or to interact and socialize with other hogs.

Pajor said several new systems are being researched that would allow groups of hogs to interact, even during pregnancy, but would still separate them during feeding with electronically controlled portions to ensure that the right amount gets to the right hog.

"You really need individualized feeding, without fighting," Pajor said. "It poses some serious management challenges and a need for more space."

Pork prices are so low, Pajor said, that farmers in big hog-producing states such as Iowa are fighting for survival and could not make major changes now even if they wanted to.

While Florida will soon have no hog farms using the banned crates, the real effect of the Florida amendment will be in other states where similar limitations might be sought, Pajor said. Such a strategy would gradually isolate farm states while gaining more public discussion of the broader issue of how farms treat animals.

McDonald's and other major food buyers have already begun tailoring their contracts to deal with producers of chickens and other farm animals in ways that meet certain standards sought by animal-rights groups.

Florida has only about 8,000 sows statewide, according to some estimates, while major pork-producing states have at least 1 million hogs and pigs. The top state, Iowa, has about 15 million, according to a September report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jerry W. Jackson is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. He can be reached at 407-420-5721 or jwjackson@orlandosentinel.com.



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