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Two Florida Farmers Opt Out of Animal Rights Battles

This week's feature story details the escalating battle between Big Agriculture and the Humane Society, the organization behind a nationwide campaign to legislate the safety and comfort of farm animals. The Humane Society helped push through Florida's "pregnant pigs" constitutional amendment in 2002 -- its first such victory in the nation. It's now illegal for Florida pigs to be kept in "gestation crates" too small to allow them to turn around for the 16 or so weeks before they give birth.

After the amendment passed, the only two large pig farms in Florida went out of business, at least in part because of plummeting pork prices. And no new large-scale pig farms have set up in Florida.

But with the recent emphasis on the local and sustainable and on humane, free-range methods of animal husbandry, smaller operators in Florida are making a go of farming.

The Humane Society's Paul Shapiro contends that the Florida amendment may have "helped provide an environment in which family farms can flourish."

Take Matt Thomas, who runs Little Pig Farm in Homosassa, Florida. He says he started the farm five years ago because he and his wife "wanted to know where our food came from."

Thomas was a city boy from Tampa with no farming background. But he started raising Berkshire pigs, a black heritage breed with dark, heavily marbled meat, beloved of chefs for its high-quality flavor. The pigs are raised naturally, without hormones or antibiotics.

Thomas has a boar and three breeding sows, and he's raising four more. The sows produce six to 12 piglets per litter that Thomas raises to adulthood. When they reach 250 to 300 pounds, he sells whole pigs for $650 direct to consumers and chefs.

The sows are treated humanely and range freely during gestation. "We used to keep our pigs in 16-by-16-foot pens," he says, "but honestly it was more trouble than just letting them run free. You'd have to come home from work and muck out the pens. This way we're all happier."

Another rancher who has switched from commodity farming to humane methods is David Strawn, whose family owns the 700-acre Deep Creek Ranch in De Leon Springs. Strawn says they're happier too now that they've turned to free-range and grass-fed ranching.

The Strawn family has been cattle ranchers since 1883: The remnants of the original slaughterhouse still stand on their property. Until five years ago, they were commodity ranchers.

But as the price of petroleum went up in the second half of the 20th Century, David says, it became harder and harder to make a living at large-scale ranching -- shipping cattle across the country to feedlots was sapping profits. So the Strawns turned to producing free-range, grass-fed beef and lamb that they now sell to consumers and to chefs like Zach Bell, who oversees the kitchen at the posh Café Boulud in Palm Beach and to Dean Max at 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale. Their grass-fed Angus and South Poll beef has an added benefit: Studies have shown it's higher in omega 3s and lower in cholesterol than commodity corn-fed beef.

Deep Creek is already so successful that Strawn says the USDA recently alerted the Strawns to an operation selling bogus Deep Creek beef. "They found somebody was buying commodity beef in the supermarket and slapping a Deep Creek label on it," Strawn says. Then they were peddling it around at farmer's markets. We heard about it and we said, here's a sign that we've finally really made it big. Somebody is counterfeiting us!"

Thomas and the Strawns have never felt any pressure from the Humane Society. "They love farms like us!" Thomas says. These farms prove it's possible to raise animals using humane husbandry. But here's the kicker: Smaller farms like Deep Creek and Little Pig are never going to feed a mass market.

As Humane Society-backed legislation puts pressure on farmers to use more expensive methods, meat may become more precious, a luxury for the kind of people who dine at Café Boulud or who can pay $325 for half a free-range Berkshire pig. Some commodity farmers may be able to weather the changes. Others who can't stand the heat, like the Basford family in Florida, may have to get out of the business.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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