By Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
In 1955 my parents, having decided that their five children should experience a bit of what farm life is about, purchased a house with forty acres in a canyon near Alamogordo, New Mexico, a fairly short commute to my father’s job at Holloman Air Force Base. A previous owner had operated a commercial orchard on the property, and it still had a number of fruit bearing peach and apple trees. In the course of the following year we acquired a registered brand, two calves, two pigs, three horses, a half dozen turkeys-and a hundred New Hampshire Red chicks ordered through the Sears Roebuck farm catalog. My father built a chicken coop with roosts and brooding nests and enclosed an open area with a wire fence, although we quickly learned that the wings on chickens are fully operational. The wire fence was soon removed and the chickens wandered at will.
New Hampshires are great egg producers, and we regularly collected more than we could possibly eat. So my father bought generic egg cartons and began selling the surplus to the people he worked with. My parents were obviously pleased with their egg-selling experiment because my father announced at dinner one night that he was going to build another coop, this one large enough to house five hundred hens. We were going into commercial egg production.
Over the next few months my father and I worked evenings and weekends building the new structure. It was long and high-ceilinged, with windows all along the side walls. The original coop now looked like a tool shed by comparison. And then, one day, they arrived, not the five hundred New Hampshire Reds I had envisioned, but hundreds of shiny metal cages. They would be hung from the rafters. Troughs attached to the cages would provide food and water and the eggs would roll out the front of the cages for daily collection.
My little sister Carol, who was seven at the time, was the first to react. She was horrified. It was mean and cruel, she said. Animals cannot live in cages. In short order the rest of us voiced similar outrage. Even my mother was sympathetic to our feelings on the issue. It was hopeless, and my father knew it. There would be no chicken gulag. When my father was transferred and sold the property two years later, the cages still sat on the ground in the new coop, a mute testament to compassion over economics.
But if I were to share this story with Rep. Steve King, he would likely respond that my little sister was an incipient animal rights radical and my father a fool.
Rep. King, you see, has had it with what he terms “the vegan lobby” and “radical animal rights groups.” The focus of his anger is the State of California. In 2008, 63% of the voters in that state approved Proposition 2, a law requiring that cages for veal calves, pregnant sows and laying hens must be large enough to permit their occupants to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs (or wings, in the case of chickens) and turn around freely. The law is scheduled to take effect in 2015. To make matters worse, the California legislature, anticipating efforts by adjoining states to lure California egg producers to relocate, enacted a statute prohibiting the sale of eggs from out-of-state producers that fail to meet California cage standards.
Rep. King, as it turns out, represents the largest egg producing district in the largest egg producing state in the country. Iowa produces almost 15 billion eggs per year, dwarfing second place Ohio’s 7.7 billion. So he has convinced the House to tack on to the pending farm bill what he calls the Protect Interstate Commerce Act. His amendment reads as follows: “The government of a state or locality therein shall not impose a standard or condition on the production of any agricultural product sold or offered for sale in interstate commerce if (1) such production or manufacture occurs in another state; and (2) the standard or condition is in addition to the standards and conditions applicable to such production or manufacture pursuant to (A) federal law; and (B) the laws of the state and locality in which such production or manufacture occurs.”
The amendment should be renamed the Lowest Common Denominator Act, because that is precisely what it will accomplish if the Senate accepts it during upcoming conference committee negotiations over the farm bill. And the prospects for passage have alarmed states and animal welfare groups around the country. A number of law professors have questioned the amendment’s constitutionality and various state agencies have argued that the amendment would result in the de facto repeal of numerous state and local laws and regulations governing everything from pesticide restrictions to horse slaughter operations. And what about Rep. King’s Tea Party commitment to federalism? Apparently, states’ rights end at the California border. “Their law happens to be unconstitutional,” he says. “They have zero right to regulate the producers in other states.”
Of course, California cannot “regulate” Iowa egg producers who prefer battery cages for hens any more than it can “regulate” hog farmers who believe that pregnant sows have no need to be able to stand up. But he also knows that California has 38 million people who consume a lot of eggs, and its standards will undoubtedly influence farmers who want to participate in that market. However, the same argument can be made about California’s emission standards for automobiles, or Texas’ adoption of high school biology texts that treat creationism as science.
The truth is that in Rep. King’s worldview the notion of humane treatment of animals intended for human consumption makes no more sense than that nonsense about climate change. It is simply a matter of economic efficiency and farm profits. And he despises those who espouse a different view. In a statement issued to the Drovers Cattle Network in June of this year, he stated that the Protect Interstate Commerce Act “will also deliver a large setback to the Humane Society of the United States and other radical animal rights organizations.”
Yet he does have a compassionate side. According to the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, Rep. King has allowed that he might agree to a compromise in which he drops his amendment in return for larger cuts in food stamps.