CM-MR-2-Gagging 1by Stephen Wagner
Trent Loos is built like Ernest Hemingway and walks with the great writer’s rolling gait. But he also has mastered the art of the amble, part of the cowboy entertainment persona he has developed for speaking to groups, ambling among them as he chats. Loos, a sixth generation farmer, has even taken it a step farther by almost standing in a Will Rogers pose, one hand in his pocket as if to say “shucks!” His Rural Route radio program is broadcast over 100 Midwest stations per week. However, when he talks to groups, like Uniting the Agriculture Community hosted by Penn-Ag Industries at Lancaster’s Farm and Home Center, Loos’s folksy charm can give way to very serious business, looking hard at controversial issues.
One such problem, which has been dubbed the Ag-Gag by much of the media, involves undercover video or photography by animal rights groups at agricultural operations with farm owners and/or managers usually unaware of their presence. There is no federal law to deal with this situation. Therefore, various states are taking it upon themselves to craft legal remedies. It is there that most similarities end.
Pennsylvania State Senator Mike Brubaker voiced concern last September with regard to protecting Pennsylvania agricultural operations by prohibiting unauthorized photos and video recordings. “Senate Bill 1596 would require individuals to obtain the owner’s permission before taking any photos or recordings on the premises,” a Brubaker press release stated at that time. The bill would add individuals who take photos or video on a farm without the owner’s consent to the list of agricultural trespassers, according to the release.
“The legislation stems from an incident in Brubaker’s district that involved an activist group targeting a laying hen operation for an exposé featuring an unauthorized video filmed by an undercover employee. Despite the fact that three independent inspectors found health and safety conditions of the operation were at or above industry-best practices immediately following the incident, the accusations still placed a heavy burden on the business.
“Under current law, there is no recourse for farm owners to protect their operation from an individual who takes photos or records video on their property without permission.
“This is not the first time that a local business has been unfairly targeted by activists, but this case serves as a startling example of the kind of damage that unfounded accusations can create,” Brubaker said. “It is important to ensure agricultural operations comply with necessary health and safety standards, but that doesn’t mean these businesses should be forced to endure all sorts of harmful, unverified allegations.”
“Violators of the law would be guilty of a third-degree misdemeanor,” the press release said in closing.
“We should not have ag-gag bills,” Trent Loos says. “I worked with Annette Sweeny in the state of Iowa, which kind of led the way, helping her to position what Iowa did in what would be termed today an ag-gag bill, but it wasn’t an ag-gag bill. In Iowa we wanted to put in place a law that brought the same criminal implications to the person who was filming the act as the person who was actually committing the act. Why is the person running the camera any less responsible than the person who did it? That was because in many cases we found that people running the camera had actually encouraged the Spanish-speaking worker on the job to take a ball-peen hammer and hit the calf over the head, when the .22 rifle was in the pick-up. The guy running the camera said ‘I’m afraid of guns. Could we just use the hammer?’
“In a reactionary defense mechanism,” Loos recounts, “pro animal forces charged that ‘Iowa is trying to take charge and make sure that we have no videotaping of employees.’ It was all defensive instead of positioning that ‘we want to make sure that the person running the camera is equally responsible.’ It is all in how you position it. We had it positioned correctly, and the ag media screwed it up. Now, we’ve got [the issue] state-by-state.” Loos said he had kept an eye on the Tennessee ag-gag bill. “It was one page,” he said. “Four lines that said nothing other than if you have a picture or video of animal abuse, you are required to turn that over to the authorities within 48 hours.”
Anti ag-gag forces wasted no time in piling on. HSUS’s Wayne Pacelle, and also singer Carrie Underwood, urged Tennessee’s governor to veto the bill. “Great news,” tweeted Underwood when Governor Bill Haslam did just that.
“Pacelle was urging the governor to veto a bill that did nothing but expose animal abuse,” Loos said. “This is a guy who is supposed to care about animal rights.”
“We don’t call ours ag-gag,” Pennsylvania Senator Mike Brubaker told Country Folks, “because we permit people to take pictures, and the bill states they must be turned over to law enforcement. I’ve talked to numerous constituency groups and not one person has stood up to say that they have a problem with somebody who believes that there’s a problem with animal abuse and turning that evidence over to law enforcement. It makes perfect sense when they do that. Then they will not be prosecuted, they are operating within the boundaries of the law, and it isn’t ag-gag at all. It’s just taking evidence and turning it over so a proper third party investigation can ensue. That is one thing the bill does. The other is that it gives farmers who make their living in animal husbandry due process of the law which they should be afforded.”
“There are many good points made by those who propose these legislative fixes,” says Chris Herr, executive director of Penn-Ag Industries. “What we have learned is that it is always more complicated than many think. Is passing a law going to prevent some 25-year-old zealot who could care less whether he is prosecuted [from] posting stuff on the internet? I don’t think so.” One must “be careful that the fight isn’t more damaging than the result,” Herr says. He also stressed that he has been counseling caution “because when your reputation is destroyed by something that is put on the internet, you’re never going to get it back. I sympathize with folks who have been put in that position. But closing the door is also something we have to be very cautious about.”
Herr also noted that in his 25 years in agriculture, this particular issue has been the most difficult to get his arms around. “Those who want to defame agriculture will continue to defame agriculture.” And yet, he notes that when he ponders the past two years at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, where close to a million people looked at the Today’s Ag exhibit and Today’s Ag Practices, less than a single handful had any issues with it. “I think we are accomplishing a lot by showing our practices, showing crates, showing cages, and the general public is okay with that.”