Number of Sonoma County farms affected by proposed ‘factory farming’ ordinance is in dispute

Sometime this year, an initiative aiming to curtail factory farming will appear on local ballots. Its authors frame it as a ban on cruel and unsanitary industrial farms. The local agricultural industry calls it a backdoor attack on the consumption of meat.

The ballot measure, which would be the first of its kind in any American county, raises huge questions relating to financial cost, regulation and Sonoma County’s appetite for animal flesh. The Board of Supervisors will listen to presentations from department heads on the potential economic fallout Tuesday.

For now, the two sides are at odds over a seemingly simple question: How many Sonoma County farms would be directly affected if the measure passes?

Six months ago, Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Dayna Ghirardelli said on KRSH Radio’s “From Farm to Table” show that it would affect “most of our local dairy and poultry operations.”

In a Los Angeles Times story published April 4, unidentified “farm interests” said it would “threaten hundreds of family and multigenerational farms, while immediately shuttering about 60.”

In an Oct. 25 “Close to Home” column in the Petaluma Argus-Courier, John Burns — that newspaper’s former publisher — quoted Ghirardelli as saying the law would effectively close “99% of Sonoma County dairies and all county poultry operations.”

The organizers who led the petition drive that ultimately succeeded in getting the initiative on the ballot have, for some time, disputed those estimates.

“My frustration is not just with the Farm Bureau being all over the place with numbers and citing no sources, but with the lack of oversight on the part of the government,” said Lewis Bernier, a member of the Coalition to End Factory Farming. “Part of what the ballot measure would do is force the county to account for them.”

Bernier and the coalition — a collective of animal rights supporters, environmentalists and small farmers — have attempted to do that. The organization recently posted a list of the 21 Sonoma County farms they believe qualify as concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs), the category of facilities that would have to be eliminated or pared down if voters pass the ordinance.

Ghirardelli, the Farm Bureau chief, declined to offer a counter-estimate this time around.

“Honestly, based on the impacts of this potential ordinance, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “One is too many. And their numbers have changed over the course of a couple months. At the end of the day, this will force family farms out of business. Food costs increased, higher traffic. And the loss of jobs would be a big deal.”

Others associated with the local ag industry questioned where the activists are getting their data, and warn that it will be difficult to calculate the number of animals on every farm in the county, along with analyzing the other conditions that define an operation as a CAFO.

In coming up with a “factory farm” definition for the ordinance, the animal rights coalition borrowed wording directly from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which uses the CAFO designation in monitoring water quality. That definition can be a bit mystifying to the uninitiated.

An “animal feeding operation” is a plot of land where animals are “stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period, and crops, vegetation, forage growth or post-harvest residues are not sustained in the normal growing season over any portion” of the property.

An AFO becomes a CAFO when it exceeds a certain size, depending on type of animal. But a “medium-scale” farm also could fit the definition if it discharges manure directly into surface water, either through a pipe or ditch or via direct contact by the animals.

Some of the alarm on the part of farmers has to do with the mid-sized facilities. If it’s discharging waste in that way, a dairy with only 200 head of cattle, or an egg farm with just 9,000 hens, could be out of compliance.

The animal rights coalition insists that’s a red herring.

Any livestock or poultry operation discharging waste into surface water is required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from the EPA. The regulatory agency has a searchable database on its website, and no agricultural facilities in Sonoma County currently have one of those permits.

In fact, only one animal feeding facility in all of California has an active pollution discharge permit: the Santa Anita Park racetrack in Los Angeles County, which was forced to obtain a permit as a penalty for environmental violations.

In other words, the activists say, there are no medium-sized CAFOs in Sonoma County. The 21 likely CAFOs on their list all are in the large-scale category.

They include 10 egg farms, four chicken-for-meat farms, six dairies and one duck farm. Among them are familiar names like Petaluma Poultry, Sunrise and Reichardt Duck Farm.

That’s actually more than the county’s Economic Development Board estimated in an unsigned report submitted to the Board of Supervisors on Friday. The board counted 11 large-size CAFOs. It also identified 49 medium-size facilities. Again, the animal rights coalition maintains they wouldn’t be included.

The Farm Bureau and individual farmers have noted that the ordinance would affect admired dairy brands like Clover Sonoma and Straus Family Creamery. Three dairies that Clover cites as suppliers — Renati and Spaletta in Petaluma, Mertens in Sonoma — appear on the coalition’s CAFO list. A spokesperson for Straus said none of the six dairies on the list supply milk to the company.

Andrew Smith, the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner, is concerned about the burden that might fall on county staff if the ordinance is passed and they have to verify the measures defining farms as CAFOs.

“It would require them essentially to go look at all the dairy and poultry operators in the county,” Smith said. “How many animals do you have? What are your production practices? What are the water features associated with your property that could identify you as a point-source polluter?”

In a report to the Board of Supervisors, Smith estimated the county would need as many as five full-time inspectors to analyze and implement the program.

“Consideration shall be made for the biosecurity requirement of individual facilities which require 72 hours between visits and the need to clean equipment,” he wrote.

And some producers claim a level of uncertainty, wondering if they’d be included among businesses forced to sell off animals or shutter entirely.

“The toughest thing for me, when I read that (ordinance), is what is the interpretation of the confined space?” said Doug Beretta, proprietor of Beretta Family Dairy and president of the Farm Bureau. “It doesn’t say they’re confined to a barn. I think about our beef industry here in Sonoma County. All winter long, they’re feeding hay or alfalfa, because there’s not enough nutrition in the grass available. I don’t know how they’ll come up with these numbers.”

In generating their list of CAFOs, the animal welfare coalition used a combination of published sources and estimates.

For dairies, they relied on data reported to the State Water Resources Control Board. They were able to get numbers for some local poultry farms from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which tracks depopulation efforts related to the outbreak of avian influenza.

When that information was unavailable, Lewis Bernier said, he calculated the size of barn space using Google Earth images — he looked at “hundreds of hours of satellite imagery” — and employed a birds-per-square-foot multiplier based on Sunrise Farms’ footprint and published depopulation figures.

“We don’t feel super confident these are exact, but it’s the best we could come up with,” Bernier said.

He and his organization also emphasize they were, if anything, over-inclusive in generating their CAFO list, not wanting to open themselves to accusations of intentionally minimizing the impacts of the ordinance.

“I’d be shocked if there is a CAFO-sized facility in the county we’re unaware of at this point,” Bernier said.

And if their numbers are wrong, the activists said, they’d like the Farm Bureau to demonstrate it — or stop floating other estimates to the public.

“They should provide sources, so voters can make an educated decision,” said Kristina Garfinkel, a member of the coalition.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On X (Twitter) @Skinny_Post.

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