By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
April 21, 2006
Ride a horse near someone's farm? You soon may have to record your trail ride for the Agriculture Department.
Are your kids involved in 4-H programs? You may soon have to register the animals they are raising and report to the government what shows the animals appear in. Keep a few chickens in the backyard so you can have fresh eggs for breakfast? You too could be affected by what officials are calling one of the most massive federal programs in history.
Dogs and cats aren't included, but the government has begun collecting information for its new animal identification program in order to better track disease. Even those not involved in farming could be affected.
The USDA says even those who raise animals only for show or use them for recreational purposes need to register.
"When people show or commingle their animals with animals from multiple premises, the possibility of spreading disease becomes a factor. Those animals will need to be identified," the agency says on its Web site.
Small farmers are already up in arms over the plan, protesting that the expense and the paperwork involved will be breathtaking.
They also complain the system is tilted in favor of large agribusiness farms. Agribusinesses raise animals in confined areas from birth through slaughter, and so under USDA rules will only be required to obtain one identification for an entire cattle herd or chicken flock. Small farmers using traditional agricultural methods will have to identify and register their animals individually.
"Before this is over, I predict there's going to be a lot opposition to this program," said Bob Parker, a Raymondville, Mo., rancher who runs 60 Corriente cattle on his 100-acre farm. "This is a pretty divisive issue."
Parker, who is chairman of his county farm bureau, said his farm is composed of three parcels of land, 23 miles apart, and the regulations would require him to tell the government each of the four or five times a year he moves cattle to new pastures.
"Just imagine the paperwork," he said. "This is such a boondoggle. The bureaucracy involved will be unbelievable. And this is a government that can't keep anything straight _ just look at the difficulty Social Security has tracking 300 million people _ and here we have 100 million head of cattle in this country."
Opposition to the new National Animal Identification System is erupting across the country, as the Agriculture Department begins the first voluntary phase of the system. That involves compiling a registry of all properties raising livestock, with their locations identified with global positioning coordinates.
The program is to be mandatory by 2009, by which time the USDA hopes to have all domestic livestock electronically tagged with radio-controlled frequency chips or some other technology farmers would have to buy and install.
Farmers who don't comply by that year face $1,000 fines for failing to tell the government when their livestock is moved, and veterinarians would be required to tell the government if they treat unidentified animals or find animals on a location that isn't properly registered.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says the aim of the program is to be able to track animals within 48 hours after a disease is discovered. "To describe this as a massive project is to under-describe how big this is and how significant it is and how much is involved," he told reporters in unveiling the program this month.
"We are talking about a system that literally says from the time of their birth on through the entire chain, we will trace that animal until we can ascertain where the animal finally was processed," he said.
Mary Zanoni, a Canton, N.Y., attorney, said the measure will kill small farms and end a prevalent practice in many areas of the country where farmers keep pigs or cattle on their properties to feed their families.
"People with just a few meat animals or 40-cow dairies are already living on the edge financially. The USDA plan will force many of them to give up farming," she said.
Zononi said the Amish and other religious groups are opposed to the identification program because they believe that marking their beasts violates their faith. She also contends it's unconstitutional to set up a surveillance system on farmers and violates property rights.
She said the program will put farmers under more government scrutiny than gun owners. "We are becoming a police state _ people are scared," she said.
Zanoni said some farmers have stopped cooperating with state or federal agricultural officials because they fear the government is becoming too involved in their farming activities.
Vermont homesteader Sharon Zecchinelli, who raises a horse for recreational use on her 12-acre farm in Enosburg Falls, Vt., noted that the United States already has an animal tracking system in place, which officials have used to trace the farms that raised animals infected with Mad Cow disease, bovine tuberculosis or brucellosis.
Organizations like the Rancher-Cattlemen Action Legal Defense Fund (R-CALF) also argue that current methods of identifying livestock using ear tags, neck chains, brands, tattoos and leg bands are sufficient for tracking diseases.
"Traceback is already there," Zecchinelli. She contended the government is actually pushing the program, not to fight disease, but to benefit the electronic-chip industry and to help large commercial farmers, who won't be unhappy to see small farmers disappear.
"I think it's going to be the death knell for small farmers and the 4-H program," she said. "If I take a horse for a trail ride, I'm going to have to take a pencil and paper with me to record the premise ID number of the properties I cross over, and then report it within 24 hours on the Internet or on the telephone, with a $1,000 fine a day for non-compliance," she said.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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