RAYMOND – Almost three years ago, when Wayne Pacelle made his first public appearance in Lincoln at the Downtown Holiday Inn, the mood was tense and veterinary students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were there to question his animal rights agenda.
In a return trip to one of the nation’s most prominent livestock states Thursday and Friday, the president of the Humane Society of the United States encountered a much more relaxed audience at Cornhusker Marriott and at an organic milk and cheese farm a few miles northwest of town.
As Kevin Fulton of Litchfield, his state-level chair of the HSUS Nebraska Agriculture Council, put it at one point Friday, “What’s not to like about that?”
Perhaps one reason for the sunnier outlook is that between October 2010 and June 2013, Pacelle has altered his thinking about the need for what would likely be an explosive ballot issue in Nebraska.
He’s gone from contemplating a petition drive to make gestation crates for pregnant hogs illegal in the state to casting that idea aside.
“It’s entirely unnecessary,” he said in a Thursday night interview, “because the market atmosphere has overtaken gestation crate issues.”
Kroger’s, McDonald’s and other giants of food retail have made it clear to their pork suppliers that they want gestation crates phased out, he pointed out. Smithfield, the largest hog producer in the United States, has taken a similar stance.
“The producer follows the retailer,” Pacelle said.
And he didn’t waste any time in testing Smithfield’s producer commitment when the company was purchased recently by a Chinese buyer.
“I spoke to them as soon as I heard about that, and they said there would be no backpedaling on this.”
At least three security guards gave close scrutiny to people entering the Cornhusker Marriott event, billed as a forum on ways to support “traditional” farmers and ranchers with a responsible attitude toward land and animal stewardship. But everybody seemed to be on the same animal rights page.
That included John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union, who announced in 2011 that his organization would be part of the council and a partner in resolving farm-animal issues.
During the program, the council brought aboard William Powers of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society as a member.
The next day at Branched Oak Farm near Raymond, Hansen said he was “very pleased with the kind of reaction last night. I’m a big believer in the communication process. And I’ve never thought it was productive to spend a lot of time vilifying your opponents or their motives.”
Doug and Krista Dittman, husband and wife and co-hosts to Pacelle, Hansen and other Friday guests, explained their organic approach to milk and cheese production and their commitment to contented cows.
“The cows like a view,” Doug Dittman said as he offered a tour of the milking parlor, “so they get to look out a window.”
Pacelle beamed his approval of a more direct connection between producers and consumers. “What we want to do as an organization,” he said, “is put the focus back on the land and producing in this way and connecting in this way.”
Absent Thursday night and Friday but keeping tabs on Pacelle’s latest Nebraska appearance were Larry Sitzman, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers, and other members of We Support Agriculture, formed in 2011 to thwart the Humane Society’s Nebraska agenda.
Sitzman said Pacelle couldn’t set his mind at ease by saying he would forego action on a petition drive -- or by any assurances he might offer on anything.
“I would not take Wayne Pacelle at his word if he said the sun was out at noon today,” Sitzman said.
Sitzman also railed against what he sees as mistaken views on gestation crates and against the Humane Society bond with the Nebraska Farmers Union.
“Their ultimate goal here is to form ag councils in different states so they have justification and bragging rights that they’re involved with mainstream agriculture, because otherwise they can’t say that.”
What about John Hansen’s ideas about finding common ground?
“That’s John’s opinion,” Sitzman said, “and not mine.”
Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at firstname.lastname@example.org