SEATTLE (AP) — It's little wonder that farmers fret about the future of the livestock industry. In the past two years, feed costs skyrocketed, pork and dairy prices plummeted, and animal rights groups stepped up efforts to improve living conditions for farm animals.
Some farmers are hoping to strike back with proactive efforts to ward off unwanted legislation and boost the struggling industry.
"A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
"The time has come for us to face our opponents with a new attitude," he told some 5,000 members gathered in Seattle for the group's annual convention Sunday. "The days of their elitist power grabs are over."
Several segments of the livestock industry found 2009 to be a rough year. Everyone suffered with higher feed and energy costs. Pig farmers endured slow pork sales that were triggered in part by the H1N1 flu virus, also known as swine flu, even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has said swine flu cannot be transmitted by eating pork products.
Dairy farmers found it even tougher.
Francis and Beverly Cherney of Milladore, Wis., who have been dairy farming for 47 years, saw small profits last year. "A couple of dollars," Beverly said with a laugh.
Low prices won't make them quit, but they know other dairy farmers who have sold their farms because they were already struggling.
"From a dairy farmer perspective, we're concluding the worst year financially we've ever had — 2009 was just a train wreck," said Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington state Dairy Federation.
The U.S. produces 25 percent of the world's milk but operates under a dated pricing system that was developed in the heart of the depression, he said.
"This isn't 1937 anymore," Gordon said.
Stallman said dairy struggles are a hot topic among his members, but he doesn't expect them to recommend any sweeping policy changes before the next farm bill in 2012.
Animal welfare and efforts by animal rights groups to regulate farmers are another matter, he said.
The Humane Society of the U.S. has shepherded laws in at least six states to ban cramped cages for farm animals and persuaded some of the country's largest fast-food restaurants and retailers to make at least a gradual switch to cage-free eggs. The group last year championed a ban on tail docking at California dairies.
Ohio farmers struck back by promoting a constitutional amendment to create a livestock care standards board. Some 50,000 signs and 100-plus billboards touted the proposal, which 64 percent of voters approved.
"I really view Ohio as a culmination of California, Colorado, Florida, all the states where the Humane Society has stepped up its efforts," Stallman said. "Each state is unique, but we have learned something every step of the way, and it culminated in a win for us in Ohio."
Jack Fisher of the Ohio Farm Bureau implored farmers in other states to be proactive and take similar steps of their own. He noted that the Human Society has turned its efforts toward regulating so-called "puppy mills" and dog breeding operations and urged farmers to join forces with that industry in educating consumers.
"No doubt we have to have agricultural unity in our states to survive these challenges," he said.
Scott and Tami Chew, who operate a large cattle ranch near Vernal, Utah, worry similar efforts in Utah are just a matter of time.
"I definitely feel like the people that are talking about animal rights are very passionate about what they're doing," Scott Chew said. "I'm concerned there's a lot of money behind them. They're well-educated people and know how to get their message across. I think there will be more of an effort to educate people that we do take care of our animals."