If authorities in Vermont have their way, farmers will have to tell them more about their business. Or face a $1,000 fine.
Vermont is the latest state to consider requiring farmers to reveal data on such things as their farms' livestock and size – laws veterinarians say could help manage farm animal diseases like mad cow and foot and mouth in the event of an outbreak.
But in a state where small farms of nursery-rhyme dimension persist even in the face of burgeoning industrial agriculture, the proposal sounds to some like government intrusion on an Orwellian scale: something akin to "Animal Farm" meets "1984." Even though such livestock accounting systems are voluntary – for now – throughout most of the country, the emotional issue has small-time farmers worrying about Big Brother and government intrusion.
"I frankly find this a great imposition on my freedoms," said Sloan Armstrong last Thursday at a public hearing in Brattleboro, organized by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Ms. Armstrong and her husband have a farm in Glover. She opposes a proposed law on so-called premises registration, which would require farmers to reveal the nature of their farm business, their locations, and type of livestock to state authorities every two years.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture says the law will simplify efforts to quickly trace diseases to their source, thereby avoiding the widespread preventive slaughters left behind by scourges like avian influenza in Asia and foot-and-mouth disease in Britain.
The Vermont proposal is similar to a voluntary federal effort to compile a nationwide database of animal identification tag numbers. But even as calls by US meat consumers grow louder for more stalwart government safety regulations, many small farmers are railing against what they see as collusion between large agribusiness and federal farm authorities to crowd out the little guy.
In Vermont, a state known as much for its progressive politics as for its pastoral provincialism, the number of organic farmers has more than tripled from 90 in 1994 to 332 in 2004, according to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, based in Montpelier. While the premises-registration program is free, many here see it as a first step toward the kind of labor-intensive bureaucratic regulations that could pose huge challenges for small farms.
At public hearings on premises registration, a common refrain from small farmers is that the program is simply a veiled attempt to cover up the dangers of industrial farming.
"Mad-cow disease is the result of these cows being fed parts of other cows. Cows that eat grass don't get mad-cow disease," says Amy Shollenberger, director of Rural Vermont, a small-farms advocacy group based in Montpelier.
"The whole point of the animal ID system and the premises registration program is to respond to these diseases," she says. "And that's where the corporations win.... They get to make money off running the program, the databases, and making the tags."
State and federal agriculture officials, on the other hand, say the program benefits everybody. Disease trace-back programs like premises registration help reassure consumers and foreign importers of the safety of American beef, they say.
Vermont's voluntary premises registration program – a precursor to what may someday become the law of the land – is separate from a larger federal program managed by the US Department of Agriculture. The federal plan, called the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), is also voluntary and covers three separate elements.
The first is premises registration. As of March, some 235,000 farms had registered nationwide, making up about 10 percent of America's producers. State-run versions of premises registration are already required by law in Wisconsin and will be on the books in Indiana by September.
A further stage of the NAIS plan is animal identification. While most farmers already use tags and numbers to identify livestock, the NAIS's animal identification component would establish a standardized, national livestock registry.
The third element of the plan, animal tracking, would provide investigators with a full history of each animal's movements in case of an emergency.
Ultimately, the NAIS's designers hope the program will allow investigators to trace diseases back to their origins within 48 hours of discovery.
"If my cow is nosing your cow across the fence line, and my cow is giving your cow a disease, we need to be able to control it, because then it becomes of public interest." says Allen Bright, an animal identification coordinator for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
As for resistance from farmers, Mr. Bright blames a lack of information and misinformed speculation. The state-run identification programs, as well as the national NAIS program, are committed to confidentiality. He emphasizes that no other government agency – the Internal Revenue Service being of particular concern to farmers – or agriculture corporation will have access to livestock or premises registration data.
While the federal program remains voluntary, USDA officials acknowledge that an effective database will require widespread compliance.
"We're implementing the program on a voluntary basis and in phases to ensure that the program that ultimately evolves will be cost-effective and practical," says Doré Mobley, a public-affairs specialist for the USDA. But just in case, Ms. Mobley adds, "We do include a contingency plan.... If the participation levels aren't adequate, we will consider developing regulations."
But some small farmers are holding their ground. "Agribusiness wants to control the food supply," says Jay Bailey, who owns a 40-acre farm near Brattleboro. "Small independent farmers are a thorn in their side. We think independently."