The Ohio HSUS Experience: Lessons for South Dakota

Posted: 12/15/2010

Posted By:  Steve Dick 

Last week, Ag United for South Dakota had the honor of hosting David White, executive director of the Ohio Livestock Coalition, at our organization's annual meeting and luncheon.  The Ohio Livestock Coalition plays a similar role in Ohio as Ag United does in South Dakota:  supporting and promoting the state's livestock producers and agricultural production.  

David's presentation focused on Ohio's experience with anti-agriculture activist groups including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the broader impact on food production and consumers in the state.  

Ohio's experiences have many lessons for South Dakota.  Like South Dakota, agriculture is the driving force in Ohio's economy, contributing $98 billion in economic impact and generating 1 million jobs in the state.  And, like South Dakota, Ohio is a "ballot initiative" state, which allows groups to introduce legislative change through a public vote rather than the traditional legislative process.   These ballot initiatives have been increasing used for a variety of issues in the past decade - and increasingly so by anti-agricultural activists.  Ballot initiatives in California, Florida and Arizona have banned livestock production practices in recent years.  

In January 2009, David received a call from HSUS that they were planning to launch a ballot initiative in Ohio.  Knowing the impact that such a ballot initiative could have, the state's livestock producers and agricultural community launched into action.  A coalition of state agricultural interests worked together to establish the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board, which would be a regulatory and rule-making board to monitor and enforce animal care and welfare guidelines in the state.  After a strong grassroots campaign, the board's formation was approved by voters in 87 of 88 of Ohio's counties in November 2009. 

With a total population of 11 million and seven metro areas of more than 250,000 people, Ohio's population is 13 times greater than South Dakota's.   A mass media campaign in Ohio would have been overwhelmingly expensive.   The successful vote for the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board was due to farmers getting out every day and telling their story.  More than 55,000 yard signs were posted and farmers secured the support of both Republican and Democratic parties, the state's chamber of commerce, the American Humane Association and numerous other groups.   

"We did not take this lightly.  We had to take control and move the debate into the hearts, minds and mouths of Ohio farmers and livestock producers," said David. "Livestock care is critical to Ohio farmers and livestock producers, and we had to tell that story." 

Shortly after the formation of the Board, HSUS announced that they would launch a new ballot initiative that would ignore the Board and seek to eliminate several livestock production practices.  HSUS hired paid petition gatherers to canvas the state and was gearing up for an expensive ballot initiative fight.  In June 2010, Ohio's governor announced an agreement with HSUS and the state's agricultural organizations that would avoid another ballot initiative and keep the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board in place.  There are still a number of issues that have to be worked through by the Board and producers in the state, but the agreement avoided a ballot initiative campaign that would have cost Ohio farmers and ag supporters $10 to $15 million to fight. 

So what are the lessons for South Dakota?  First, states that have significant rural or agricultural roots are not immune to HSUS.  Here in South Dakota, HSUS has held organizational meetings this year, and HSUS President Wayne Pacelle was in Lincoln, Nebraska, last month.  

Most importantly, we can't wait to tell our story.  The average person in the US trusts farmers, but is unaware of daily activities that happen in food and livestock production. Consumers want to know that animals are well-cared for and not mistreated.  And, who are the best authorities on how animals are cared for?  Farmers, ranchers and veterinarians.  

Farmers and livestock producers face challenges every day, from the weather to economic conditions.   However, the biggest long-term threat we fact in agriculture is farmers and ranchers not explaining what they do and how they do it.  If we don't step up and tell our story, activists like HSUS will do it for us.


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