What the bleat do ‘they’ know?

“The government is saying that Aunt Martha’s laying hen is a threat to the national food system. Well, that’s just silly.”

— local farmer Sherry Williams

The La Mancha dairy goat has ears so small they are hardly ears at all, just holes with a little ruff of fur around them.

“The first time I saw one, I thought, ‘By God, that’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,'” recalls Sherry Williams, who raises nearly 50 dairy goats, including La Manchas, at her Listening Eagle Farm near Marion. “But they grow on you. They really do.”

Homely goats might seem an unlikely flash point in the continuing struggle between the U.S. government and private enterprise. But the fact that the old breed’s idiosyncratic ears are too small to accommodate an identification tag has put these animals on a collision course with 21st-century farmland security.

The National Animal Identification System, conceived in the wake of the mad cow disease scare, envisions a central database that would enable public officials to trace any animal in the U.S. back to its farm of origin within 48 hours. This, it’s argued, would help keep sick animals out of the food system — or, in the case of a disease outbreak, get a quarantine in place.

The NAIS, a joint project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and individual states, is voluntary for now. A draft plan, released last April, lays out a tentative time line for phasing in the program. But the details are still in flux, and the USDA is seeking input from farmers to help the agency fine-tune the system. At present, however, the plan calls for requiring anyone who keeps livestock — from alpacas to cattle to the casual chicken — to register their farm or other property with a unique, seven-digit “premises ID” by 2008. And the following year, producers will have to go further, identifying any animals that might ever leave the property. Many livestock owners, especially small operators like Williams, are less than happy about what the system will mean for them.

“If what you raise is for export and you’re handling hundreds of steers, then yes, it makes sense to go ahead and register your animals,” she argues. “But now the government is saying that Aunt Martha’s laying hen is a threat to the national food system. Well, that’s just silly.”

A whole new world

In the past, an unmarked goat hardly seemed cause for concern. But livestock now pass across national borders without so much as a backward bleat or moo, carrying with them the potential for outbreaks of deadly disease. And those possible consequences are too grave to go unaddressed, the U.S. government maintains.

Concern about the nation’s food supply may be justified in light of international developments. In 2001, Britain’s foot-and-mouth-disease epidemic had U.S. agriculture officials wringing their hands and looking warily across the Atlantic. And since the discovery of mad cow disease (properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in a Canadian cow in Washington State three years ago, U.S. scares have triggered freeze-outs of the nation’s export market for beef, leading to millions in trade losses. More recently, avian influenza’s steady march across Eurasia makes its arrival here, and the attendant loss of poultry, seem almost inevitable.

If all that weren’t worrisome enough, fear of terrorists introducing a livestock disease as a way to shake the national food supply further clouds the American barnyard.

“The marketplace is the driver here,” explains Chester Lowder, director of livestock programs for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, which supports the tracking system. “Consumers want the peace of mind to know that their food supply is safe. Eventually, in order for a producer to get top dollar, he’s going to have to register his animals.”

The NAIS gives livestock producers several options for identifying their animals: bar-coded ear tags, metal bands or radio-frequency markers the size of a grain of rice, which can be inserted under the skin. According to the draft version of the plan, large groups of even-aged animals such as hogs may be treated as a lot and assigned a single identification number that can be referenced when they are moved off-farm for sale or slaughter.

Farmers will foot the cost for tagging and registering their animals. And while the tags themselves are not expensive (even the subdermal radio-frequency ID markers generally cost less than $10 apiece), it’s hard to get an electronic reading device for less than $500. For small farmers with stretched budgets, NAIS compliance promises to be a major capital expense.

Concealed-chicken permit

The tracking system has widespread support among agribusiness and national agriculture groups like the Farm Bureau. But its merits are less obvious in places like Western North Carolina, with its patchwork of mostly small, family-owned farms.

“The only way I could see this system being fair to the smaller livestock owner is if there were a cutoff in terms of number of animals raised,” says Asheville resident Karen Jordan, a member of the Piedmont Dairy Goat Association. “If you’ve only got a couple of animals, you should probably be exempt. And if the animals you are raising are not going into the national food chain, you should definitely be exempt.”

Jordan also says that too few animal owners even know about the system and what it will require of them.

“The USDA has done pretty much nothing to inform small farmers about the system,” Jordan asserts. Most of those who do know about it got their information from trade magazines or livestock-association newsletters, not directly from the USDA, she says.

“We’ve actually done quite a bit,” counters Dore Mobley, a public-affairs specialist with the USDA. “Can we do more? Sure.”

When the system was rolled out in 2004, the agency reached out via public meetings, media alerts and a tour of farming functions and state fairs, says Mobley. Another round of discussions is planned in the next several months, she reports, adding that the USDA is eager to hear more public comment about the system. And while Mobley admits that the NAIS Web site (animalid.aphis.usda.gov/nais/index.shtml) is a “passive method” of reaching the nation’s farmers, she feels it is an effective one.

For now, the NAIS phase-in is beset with fundamental questions: Who will maintain the massive database? How will the government make such an unwieldy system seamless? Meanwhile, farmers like Williams have pledged to fight NAIS to the finish — as much for the threats to their privacy they believe it represents as for the added expense it will entail.

“I understand that you’ve got to have a license to have a gun. But now they’re telling me I have to have a license to farm? That’s exactly what this is. Everybody’s saying that right now this is just a plan. But this is the time to argue with it — when it’s still a plan, before the proverbial men in black show up at your farm.”


Herd it through the grapevine

A free discussion on the National Animal ID System will be held Tuesday, April 4, at the Buncombe County Cooperative Extension Center (corner of Coxe and Hilliard avenues in downtown Asheville) starting at 6:30 p.m. N.C. Department of Agriculture veterinarian Andy Elmore will speak. For more information, call Karen Jordan at 298-4824.

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