Animal husbandry is the main focus at Cota Farms and that is why it is sad to me that we must now leave Animal Welfare Approved. We were among the first of the farms joining the organization and the very first in Ohio.
Our concept of animal care has not changed. What has changed are the requirements for AWA certification, specifically, the onerous nature of these requirements. There is now, I believe, a disconnect between the ideals of a small family farm, giving good care to their animals, and what AWA is becoming.
An ever increasing amount of record keeping and unrealistic farm practices does not equal good animal care. When this reflection is combined with the fact that a farm is a business enterprise which must at some point make a profit lest all the animals be destroyed or worse, suffer from the poverty of the farm, it does not make sense for us to continue in the program. As the cost to feed our animals rises while the ability of more and more Americans to purchase our products wanes, I can not justify the added cost to meet the requirements of AWA certifications when there is no notable improvement in quality of care.
It does not escape notice that as AWA is prolific in its writing and promotion of animal care, it is difficult to find any reference to the cost of this care, how it impacts the cost of the final product, or how the consumer may view this additional cost. If we are to agree that the standards put forth by AWA is best for all animals, and should all producers adopt these standards, then we must also agree to pay more for our food. It is disturbing that this fundamental consequence of AWA efforts is no where addressed in AWA publications.
To be sure, many of the requirements are just common sense and are followed by most conscientious farmers who have nothing to do with AWA. But like so many good intentions taken too far, the extreme nature of the latest revisions of the animal care standards, are leading down the path of diminishing returns. Many of these, in my opinion, unnecessary standards, only invite rebuke from that segment of the population who already feel that this new concern for animal welfare is disproportionate to the concerns of our human residents.
When we examine the practice of raising animals for food, and yes that is what we are talking about, and one group advocates a procedure so out of balance with another, there can be no good outcomes. Since in reality, the more extreme practices will cost much more than the other, a new and unwelcome price structure for food is created. One has only to visit a thriving farmer’s market and compare the prices to the local grocery chain store, to see that this is already in motion. It is true that there will always be those who have more money than others and can afford more expensive foods, but is it the goal of AWA to help further this elitist notion?
Since AWA only confers its certification on the small, family farm, does it not follow that its standard be practical and suited to the farmer of modest means? Even a casual look at the present standards reveals that they are meant for an organization having great resources, which has personnel who do nothing but bookkeeping and maintenance. Since corporations have rejected these standards, how can the small farmer afford them?
I can not dissect each animal standard and point to this or that and offer criticism, but I expect that the first retort to this letter would be, “well what exactly are you referring to”. I will then point out one example of what I believe to be not only an impractical requirement, but just plain silly. The sheep standard (14.0) specifies that any processing facility must first pass an inspection by AWA before it can be used for sheep slaughter. First of all, this is not a simple matter. Most local state inspected and USDA inspected facilities do not take kindly to this type of third party scrutiny. They are already burdened with much regulation and oversight by government inspectors. If the small farmer asking them to submit to this additional review is not an important part of their business, they must considered is it even worth the hassle and may just say no. However, if the farmer is able to persuade the slaughter facility to go along with this certification process, this still is not sufficient! AWA now wants the farmer to stay with the sheep while it is being slaughtered to, presumably, continue the scrutiny of the processor. Many government inspectors would not allow this much less the facility tolerate it. If AWA has previously certified the facility, what does it mean that the farmer must still stand by and oversee the procedure? If the farmer is truly representing a small family farm, he or she hardly has the time to devote to this activity when they should be home doing record keeping.
We at Cota Farms live with our animals, that is, there is not one square foot of living or agricultural space that we do not share with at least some of our animals. No number of pages of rules can foster in us the ability to better care for our animals. Indeed, all they can do is divert resources from actual care.
We still believe in and practice the ideals that first brought the Animal Welfare Institute into being. In certain instances, oversight is needed to balance the moral necessity of animal care against the pursuit of profit. Being a real small farm, a farm with very limited economic power, we have no illusions that our voice will have any impact on the policies of AWA. It is certain though, that as the cost of food continues to rise, and the burden of these programs only diminishes the ability of the small farm to be sustainable, others will join with us and question what is being gained by AWA membership.