Sign of the Times

4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Dennis Larison Editor

It seemed kind of humorous at first — this story about a roadside sign in Iowa — but after I thought about it, I began to worry a bit about the future of farming’s public image.

According to the Iowa City Press-Citizen, the red and white sign reads: “Notice: This property is a farm. Farms have animals. Animals make: Funny sounds, smell bad and have sex outdoors. Unless you can tolerate noise, odors and outdoor sex, don’t buy property next to a farm!”

Now, it’s been a few decades since I lived in Iowa, but farming is so pervasive there, I don’t recall anyone ever having to post a sign like that when I was growing up. But times have changed greatly since then, and not just in Iowa.

Has farming become so misunderstood by the nonfarming public that we have to warn people about it? Or even worse, wall the public out?

Turns out that sign in the Iowa countryside is the latest manifestation in an ongoing zoning dispute between county planners trying to provide for more residential housing and those fighting against the loss of farmland.

Faced with the prospect of a 70-unit housing development and their inability to persuade the county to block it, opponents, including the farmer across the road from the 90-acre site, have adopted other means to discourage the project. And that goes well beyond posting a sign.

Jim Sedlacek, the farmer, has gone in with other opponents to create the Newport Hog Cooperative LLC, which intends to build a 200-head, free-range hog operation right across from the development.

The sign gives the developer and prospective residents fair notice of what’s in store for them — rubs their noses in it, so to speak.

Whether that ploy will work seems highly doubtful. More disturbing is the message it sends to the public by portraying farming as a repellent activity.

Were this effort an isolated incident, it would be easy to dismiss it with a chuckle, but it seems such combative approaches are becoming more common and threaten to increase the tension between agriculture and the nonfarming public rather than alleviate it.

Take the so-called “ag-gag” laws now on the books in Iowa, Utah and Missouri, and proposed in a number of other states, including Pennsylvania, Indiana, Tennessee and California.

The whole movement was the subject of a New York Times article last weekend titled “Taping of Farm Cruelty Is Becoming the Crime.”

Such laws are designed to counter undercover videotaping by animal-rights groups, which sometimes depicts legitimate agricultural practices in an unfavorable light rather than uncovering the actual abuse of animals.

Although the Times story acknowledges that those videotapes can be unfair and misleading, the general tone is more favorable to the videotapers — who are depicted as whistle-blowers — than to the agricultural community.

The laws can be effective, though.

“It definitely has had a chilling effect on our ability to conduct undercover investigations,” Vandhana Bala, an attorney for Mercy for Animals, told the Times.

Yet it’s possible to win most of the battles and still lose the war. I suspect there will eventually be a test case that the activists will take to court to contest such laws on First Amendment grounds.

The possibility of agriculture being depicted favorably when that hand-picked spotlight is focused on the issue seems as dim as the prospect of a roadside sign turning away a housing development.


Is the EPA being unrealistic in its timeline to reduce farm runoff into the Chesapeake Bay?

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