Over 100 ranchers, farmers, horse lovers and property owners gathered last week at the Pipe Creek Community Center, each seeking translation for a wafting murmur that reeks of the ultimate big brother intrusion. Most left the Thursday-night town hall meeting prepared for what some may consider a revolution.
The issue at hand that had the crowd up in arms is a government plan labeled the National Animal Identification System (NAIS - pronounced [nase]). Reportedly buried in 2004 farm bill HB1361 after being lobbied by industrial-agricultural companies, NAIS was allegedly conceived for the purpose of safeguarding the country's meat supply by controlling the outbreak of communicable, deadly disease. What the public fears, however, is the apparent grander scheme.
"The time has come to pay closer attention to how the government is ruling our lives," Rancher Karen Brown said. "The USDA continues to misrepresent this as a volunteer program. In Texas, the penalty is up to $1,000 a day and may include jail time for failure to comply. A system that carries penalties is not a voluntary system."
According to Brown, the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) has launched a mail campaign which urges land and animal owners to register their properties with the government. At this point, Brown said, it is not mandatory to fill out the surveys, nor are those who receive the mailings required to send them back.
The plan purportedly calls for creating a premises identification number for all registered properties where livestock is located; radio tagging or microchipping all agricultural animals, including cattle, poultry, pig, deer, bison, equine and exotics; and 24-hour animal tracking, which will require extensive reporting to detail when a registered animal is relocated, whether permanently for market sale or temporarily for a show or trail ride.
"That is probably the most offensive part of the system," Brown said. "The cost of this program is going to be borne by people who own animals. People like us, people with small farms are going to disappear from the market. We just won't be able to absorb the cost."
Debbie Davis, a longhorn rancher in Tarpley, said that she signed up with the program two years ago. Regretting the action and now better informed, Davis helped found The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), a lobbying organization built to protect small farmers against systems like NAIS and corporate interference.
Davis said the first step in the fight is to vote for people who are against NAIS.
She said the Talent Emerson Bill, which is scheduled to be entered into Congress in December, will be the first statute to make NAIS a strictly voluntary program if approved. NAIS was unanimously passed two years ago because representatives neither knew about the program nor that it was hidden in the Christmas Tree house bill. Only one house representative, Suzanna Hupp, insisted that her vote be changed after the bill passed.
Davis also said that those who have signed and returned the mailed NAIS forms still have an opportunity, and the legal right, to withdraw now.
NAIS was originally destined to become a mandatory program by July of 2005. Due to mass protest, however, Brown said that the TAHC stalled the target date to 2007.
According to Davis, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan have already implemented mandatory participation, under the leadership of extension agencies touting disease control as the number one priority. Texas may be next on the list.
"The USDA does not know how to ID disease," Brown said. "They have one policy for disease control - wholesale slaughter."
Brown said that if a diseased animal is discovered, all species susceptible to the disease will be immediately killed within a six-and-one-quarter mile radius, regardless of the animals' health status.
"I don't find that acceptable," Brown said. "My horses will be going somewhere else."
Dan Cox of the Barrel House in Pipe Creek said that he has a USDA license for selling feed, as well as a limited species of exotics.
Brown said that a backdoor compliance measure may prohibit feed stores and veterinarians from providing services to customers without a premises ID. Furthermore, feed store owners and vets may be enforced to report non-complying customers to the USDA or TAHC.
"They'll just have to close me down," Cox said. "I'll be danged if I become an informant on my neighbors."
Brown said that enforcement of NAIS will sabotage the system by creating a black market for agricultural needs. If an animal is diseased, for example, owners will be unlikely to seek legitimate veterinarian care, which could cause a serious, if not deadly, outbreak.
Ron Hickerson, who spearheaded the campaign against NASE in Bandera County, spoke briefly from a veteran's point of view in opposition to the slippery slope of large-scale surveillance.
"This is the first time in the history of our country that citizens have had to report their movements to the government," Hickerson said. "As a veteran, I look at this as a violation of my constitutional rights."
County commissioners will be called to the plate on Thursday, Oct. 26, when they will be asked to review and consider for action a resolution opposing NAIS and the proposed Texas Regulations for Mandatory Premises Registration.
"We need a resolution signed countywide opposing NAIS until the system is abolished," Brown said. "There is strength in numbers."
For a list of representatives and organizations in support of and opposed to NAIS, visit www.farmandranchfreedom.org.