Pete Letheby Opinion Oct. 22, 2015 Web Exclusive
Like all farmers and ranchers, Kevin Fulton has experienced his share of tough days at work. But he does everything possible to make sure that his animals – goats, sheep, cattle and chickens – never have to experience more than one bad day themselves.
"If we can provide an environment where our animals only have one bad day in their lives, we’ve done our job," he said. "That’s in contrast to the animals in factory farms who only have one good day in their lives — the day the misery ends for them. That’s a big difference."
Fulton, 55, owns and operates a 1,000-acre organic farm on the edge of Nebraska’s isolated Sandhills, where he’s produced grass-fed beef that’s been served in upscale restaurants from San Diego to New York. The town closest to his spread is Litchfield, population 250. Yet though he lives far from the people in the urban areas that he serves, Fulton has become a national spokesman for animal welfare.
He is, you might say, a poster child for the Humane Society of the United States. This borders on treason for those engaged in conventional agriculture, which is big on the use of chemicals and antibiotics and not heavily concerned about the welfare of confined farm animals. Most notably, Fulton helped to inaugurate the Humane Society’s trail-blazing Agricultural Advisory Councils.
His involvement with the group began in the fall of 2010, after Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s longtime president, visited Nebraska for a town hall meeting to discuss the welfare of farm animals. Pacelle was most interested in finding out about confined animal operations, which, he’d been told, were brutal and anything but humane. That’s when Fulton came forward.
"The Humane Society was getting beat up out here in the ag community," Fulton recalled. "Many farmers thought the organization was worse than the antichrist. The ag industry was painting it as, ‘You’ve never been on a farm and you’re all a bunch of vegans.’ "I told Wayne, ‘You need to get farmers more involved on the front lines to fight these battles.’"
The result: Fulton decided to start a progressive farm and ranch movement in cooperation with the Humane Society. It’s been just five years, but today 19 states have with their own or shared Humane Society Agricultural Advisory Councils, all with farmers as members. The most recent states to climb on board were Washington, Oregon and Idaho, forming the Northwest Advisory Council.
Although the councils have no legislative or governmental authority to enact changes, they have had an impact through lobbying, education and recruiting farmers to join a cause that resonates with the American public. Perhaps most importantly, the Humane Society councils have put conventional agriculture on notice — or perhaps on edge — by bringing it under sharper scrutiny. This has an impact: Conventional farmers are not particularly worried about being attacked from the outside, but they seriously dislike being challenged by their fellow farmers and ranchers.
The ag councils’ approach is simple: Farmers and ranchers need to respect the land and treat farm animals humanely, an approach that consumers find sympathetic.
His fight for altruistic standards has earned Fulton some threats from fellow Nebraskans, who’d like him to just clam up and go away. But Fulton, who, in his younger days, worked as a college strength and conditioning coach and competed in countless weightlifting and strongman competitions, isn’t fazed by threats.
When former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman vowed to "kick HSUS’ ass" out of Nebraska, Fulton simply became more energized. He points out that Nebraska now has well over 50,000 Humane Society supporters. This is more than the number of farm operations in the state.
"I am Humane Society," Fulton says. "And I am Nebraska. I’m not going anywhere."
There is increasing evidence that Fulton’s insider approach is making inroads. A rapidly growing number of major U.S. food companies and restaurant chains — from Wendy’s to Aramark to McDonald’s to, most recently, General Mills — are moving away from inhumanely produced animal products. Some states’ recent, overzealous "ag-gag" laws, which outlaw photos of farm operations, have also sparked a backlash from consumers who can’t help wondering just why the industrial farms are so secretive. What, they ask, is Big Ag hiding from the public?
What’s more, two former presidential candidates – Nebraska’s Bob Kerrey and Kansas’ Bob Dole, both known for their sturdy Midwestern common sense – recently signed on as Humane Society advisors. Who would have ever imagined that? Reform of confined farm operations must be long overdue, Dole and Kerrey reason. Change is a good thing.
Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed service of High Country News. He is a journalist and freelance writer in Grand Island, Nebraska.