The Prohibition on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations is collecting signatures to put a citizen-initiated ballot initiative before the voters in Sonoma County. Sounds noble, something you might read the title on and sign away, and if it catches on, it could be in a county near you soon!

So, what is a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO)? For the definition, I went to Wikipedia: “In animal husbandry, a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO; popularly known as factory farm), as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is an intensive animal feeding operation (AFO) in which over 1,000 animal units are confined for over 45 days a year.”

Wow, 1,000 sounds like a lot, right? Wrong. The reality is that you need at least that many to stay in business. You must milk at least 1,000 cows just to pay the bills in California!

What do I mean by that? When you spread your costs over 1,000 heads of cattle, you can barely afford (most of the time) to pay the high cost of feed, labor, electricity, insurance, veterinary, repairs your operation requires, environmental reporting and compliance, etc.

In addition, you also have the cows’ offspring to feed and house, and they do not produce milk and give you a financial return for at least two years when they become part of the milking string. Even if you milked 500 cows, you would meet the 1,000 animal unit threshold with their offspring (calves and heifers).

Not only would it affect dairies in Sonoma County, but the initiative would also affect other livestock and poultry operations, shuttering the farms and the people who rely on them for jobs. That includes their employees and families, truck drivers, repair operations, salespeople, the milk and dairy product processing facilities and employees, and many more.

Then, where would Sonoma County’s milk come from? Most dairies in Sonoma County would be out of business. Milk processing would disappear in the area, or it would need to be trucked from other state areas—or even out of state—if it underwent processing, causing more of a carbon footprint.

Because of the ability of extreme groups to garner enough signatures to produce a ballot initiative and the ease with which signatures are gathered from unsuspecting voters in front of grocery stores and other businesses, measures like this can have far-reaching effects should they become law. Once you put a dairy farm out of operation, it is most likely gone forever.

Twenty years ago, California had 2,125 dairies. Today, that number is less than 1,115. The environmental and regulatory hurdles existing in California do not allow, realistically, for a shuttered dairy to reopen or a new operation to be built. My best advice? Don’t sign any petitions unless you have time to educate yourself because the consequences can be bigger than expected.

Kirsten Areias

Kirsten Areias, who recently received the Merced Chapter California Women for Ag Bell Ringer award for promoting agriculture, writes a regular agriculture column for The Westside Express.