Speakers at Diemand Farm ‘Egg Buy-In’ in Wendell Urge ‘No’ Vote on Question 3

MassLive, November 3, 2016, by Mary Serreze

The one Massachusetts egg farm that could be put out of business if Question 3 passes is pushing back, saying the ballot campaign, which would effectively require all laying hens to live cage-free, is misguided.

Birds at Diemand Farm are clean and happy, and by contrast, cage-free poultry operations can be inhumane, said members of the Diemand family and others at an “egg buy-in” event Wednesday.

The farm on Mormon Hollow Road is home to nearly 3,000 laying hens. It’s the only egg farm in Massachusetts to use a cage system, with each hen residing in a 12-by-18-inch berth that’s 18 inches high. The cages also let the birds stick their heads out. Question 3 would require larger cages or none at all. If approved, the ban would be in effect by 2022.

Peter, Faith and Annie Diemand — three of 12 siblings — are business partners in the poultry farm that got its start in 1936. Now with a diversified income stream, eggs make up 20 to 25 percent of the farm’s income.

Dozens who attended Wednesday’s event sipped cider, spent money at the farm store and heard remarks from opponents of the ballot question, which would ban cages that keep an animal from “lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs or turning around freely.”

“We would need to invest a quarter-million dollars to comply with Question 3,” Annie Diemand told The Republican. “And at this point in our lives, we’re just not going to do that.”

She said the family “has been vilified” by Question 3 supporters, and that angry people from outside the region have showed up at the farm. “But when they see our operation, they change their minds.”

The Humane Society of the United States and other groups are behind Citizens for Farm Animal Protection, the coalition backing the 2016 ballot question.

While Question 3 would apply to veal or pork, there are no Massachusetts farms that raise calves or pigs in confined cages. In addition to regulating confinement, the ballot question would prohibit grocery stores from selling noncompliant eggs or meat even if they come from out of state.

Speakers: Diemand Farm practices are humane

Speakers at the “egg buy-in” included an organic agriculture expert, the director of the statewide “No on 3” campaign, and the leader of a national nonprofit that supports farmers’ rights.

Jonathan von Ranson is former president of the state chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. He said he recently visited a “cage-free” poultry farm and was appalled by the conditions.

“You could barely breathe the air,” he said. “You just wanted to get out of there. It was very, very crowded, an endless barn of hens on the floor. There was a lot of mounded-up manure, there was pecking that resulted in bleeding, and the hens were not clean.”

The Diemand operation is not only breathable and sanitary, but also has happy hens, said von Ranson. “Yes, they are caged, but they are in a much better place, and a much better mental state than in that other facility.”

Diane Sullivan argued that the proposal would hurt low-income families by raising the price of eggs, an inexpensive protein source.

Sullivan is campaign manager for Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice, the “No on 3” effort supported by the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, New England Brown Egg Council and others.

“I got involved through my own experience with hunger, poverty and homelessness,” she said. “For the past 15 years, I’ve been looking at public policy through that lens. When we start to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, there will be unintended consequences, and poor people often pay the price.”

Sullivan said on the campaign trail, she has heard from opponents about “this one farm in Western Massachusetts” where “thousands of chickens were going insane.” When she visited Diemand Farm, she said she got a different impression.

“These hens are not crammed into cages,” she said. “They are happy and healthy. None of the videos we’re seeing in these TV ads were recorded in Massachusetts. It’s a nonissue.”

Brian Klipperstein, director of the Missouri organization Protect the Harvest, said the “Yes on 3” coalition has an agenda that goes beyond the confinement of farm animals.

“They don’t like animal-based protein, but they’ve got a problem, since 95 percent of Americans still eat meat, eggs or dairy. … They are trying to win at the ballot what they lost at the checkout counter.”

“No matter what modern practice or new technology is in place, they will be against it,” he said, “and they’re going to step on people who are in their way. When it comes to people who are their political opponents, they are ruthless.”

He said Sullivan has been harassed and bullied on social media for her stance, and that the Diemands have also endured abuse. “People have said Diane Sullivan should be put in a cage,” he said.

Farmers will have a daunting task in the next 40 years to feed a burgeoning population, Klipperstein said. In the meantime, “there are nearly 900 million people in this world who go to bed hungry, and 2.8 billion who live on less than $2 a day.”

Records from the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance show that Citizens for Farm Animal Protection have pulled in more than $2.6 million in receipts over two years, while Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice have received $302,600 over the same period.

He said the Humane Society has a state-by-state plan to put similar measures on the ballot, and that the group has “assets over $250 million, annual revenues of $125 million and a $50 million payroll.”

Protect the Harvest was founded in 2011 by Forrest Lucas, CEO of Lucas Oil Products. Lucas has contributed $250,000 to the “No on 3” campaign in Massachusetts.

The Protect the Harvest Action Fund in April disputed Attorney General Maura Healey’s approval of the referendum language, but the state’s highest court upheld the validity of the ballot question.

A measure similar to Question 3 passed in California in 2008, but remains tied up in federal court over an Interstate Commerce Clause challenge.

Diemand Farm in recent years started catering, offering chicken barbecues and selling prepared meals to go. Peter Diemand runs a sawmill and sells lumber and firewood. The farm sells hay, compost, grass-fed beef and lamb, Thanksgiving turkeys, roasting chickens and turkey pot pies.

“We’ve taken real steps to diversify. Still, it would be a real blow if we had to shut down the commercial laying operation,” said Annie Diemand. “Today, we’re just trying to educate people. We’re grateful to our neighbors who came out here today to show their support.”