Farmers face deadline on federal ID program

Alice C. Elwell

Farmers have until Dec. 14 to decide if they will participate in a federal database designed to keep a lid on animal diseases.

But some local farmers, such as Ron Maribett of Plympton, have been adamantly opposed to the National Animal Identification System from its inception.

Maribett fears the NAIS is the first step in putting smaller farmers like him out of business and is concerned about the costs of labeling and reporting. He believes the program favors large-scale factory farmers.

“I'm opting out,” Maribett said. “I don't want to be involved.”

The controversial animal surveillance program is designed to allow the federal government to track a disease outbreak in the food supply. A national disease response network is intended to minimize and quickly limit the spread of plagues and outbreaks like mad cow disease, swine fever, bird flu, and foot-and-mouth disease.

Proponents say the database will allow officials to trace an animal disease to its source, identify which animals are involved in an outbreak, and determine where the infected animals are currently located and what other animals might have been exposed.

The program consists of three components: premise registration, animal identification by tagging and animal tracking, which includes reporting when animals move from farm to farm.

The first component is voluntary and already under way, but farmers can “opt out.”

It is the tagging component that concerns small-scale farmers.

Deb Kirsch, owner of Looking Glass Farm in Middleboro, has 15 horses in her barn. While registering her barn at the federal level doesn't alarm Kirsch — “My first reaction is it's not a big deal” — she is apprehensive about the next step, animal identification.

“I'm curious about the costs,” said Kirsch.

Kirsch said tagging or micro-chipping each horse could be costly, and eat into her veterinarian budget.

“I'd be opposed if I had to bear the brunt of the cost of micro-chipping all of my animals,” Kirsch said.

“I'm rethinking my scale of operations for next year,” Maribett said. “Every farmer I talk to is seriously considering the situation.”

With rising fuel costs, feed prices and now NAIS, Maribett said he might just turn to vegetable farming.

“I may change my priorities,” said Maribett, who is on the lecture circuit, speaking to employee groups of local banks and business about how to get organic food.

Brad Mitchell, of the Department of Agricultural Resources, is baffled by the opposition.

“Massachusetts is a crossroads for the sale and distribution of animals, primarily auctions,” he said.

Last year when the program was initiated, the DAR began uploading farm identification information into the federal system. A revolt among farmers, lead by the Northeast Organic Farming Association, halted uploading the information. The program is back, on a voluntary basis.

Mitchell said it is pure speculation what is next.

“I have concerns,” Mitchell said, but added the DAR is prepared to lobby for the small farmer.

“If we don't think it's tenable for the small farmer, we won't participate,” he said.

“If it comes down to it and the USDA is doing something that is not in the best interest of Massachusetts agriculture, I can't imagine DAR supporting it,” Mitchell said.

The concept makes perfect sense, but Mitchell has questions about tagging and tracking.

“DAR's job is to make sure it works for the small farmer,” he said.

Ben Grosscup, of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said the database is a “massive undertaking” with taxpayers footing the bill. He said the enormous resources would be better spent on healthy animal husbandry and sustainable farming.

- The Enterprise