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Minnesota farmers press Congress to block California ban on pork produced through ‘inhumane’ gestation pens

California’s Prop. 12 establishes new minimum requirements on farmers to provide more space for breeding pigs and requires they certify they have complied in order to sell pork.

Mike Boerboom
Mike Boerboom and other hog farmers in Minnesota have lobbied their representatives in Congress to blunt the California law.

WASHINGTON – Mike Boerboom, who produces pork from 8,000 sows on two family farms near Marshall, is among thousands of farmers raising pigs who say the future of their operations is under threat because of a 2018 ballot initiative in California.

California’s Proposition 12 establishes new minimum requirements on farmers to provide more space for breeding pigs and requires they certify they have complied in order to sell pork in the state after Jan. 1, 2024.

Like many hog producers in Minnesota and across the nation, the way Boerboom houses most of his sows falls short of California’s law. So, the National Pork Producer’s Council has spent years suing to try to overturn the California law. Having lost their fight against Prop. 12 in lower courts, the council appealed to the Supreme Court, which disappointed the association by upholding the California law in May. If Proposition 12 “really does threaten a ‘massive’ disruption of the pork industry,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court, it can lobby Congress to intervene instead.

And so they have. Pork producers are now looking to the massive farm bill that is under discussion in Congress or any other legislative avenue for relief. But it’s not certain they will get it.

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“Unfortunately, at this point, there is no clear direction on what a solution is,” said Boerboom.

Lauren Sevick, director of public policy at the Mankato-based Minnesota Pork Producers Council, said “the farm bill presents an opportunity to address” the problems pork producers have with Proposition 12.

“It’s one option, but not the only option,” she said.

Minnesota is the nation’s No. 2 pork producer, second only to Iowa. According to the National Pork Producer’s Council, the size of the Minnesota hog herd has varied over time but has trended upward from 5.8 million head in 2000 to 8.9 million head in 2021.

And Boerboom and other hog farmers in the state have lobbied their representatives in Congress to blunt the California law.

So Minnesota lawmakers are trying to come to the aid of hog famers through legislation. Some, including Rep. Brad Finsted, R-1st District, support the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, which would bar states like California from regulating farmers and ranchers nationwide.

“While liberal states seek to put family farms out of business and increase the cost of putting protein on the table, I will continue to stand up for farm country in Congress,” Finstad said after the Supreme Court ruled on Proposition 12 in May.

But a group of lawmakers are pushing back against the EATS Act. Thirty U.S. Senators, mostly Democrats, recently wrote to the heads of the House and Senate saying the legislation would dangerously overreach.

The Senate letter, which was not signed by either Sens. Amy Klobuchar or Tina Smith, said the EATS Act would go much further than reversing Proposition 12, “impacting food safety, farm worker protections, and environmental standards while ignoring the will of voters and infringing on states’ rights.”

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Smith said she does not necessarily support the EATS Act, but is looking for a way to help farmers who will be affected by the California law when it takes effect at the end of the year.

“I have talked with pork producers in Minnesota about the California rule and I understand their concerns,” Smith said in a statement. “I am working with my colleagues to find a way to help pork producers that will be impacted.”

About 170 House members signed the letter objecting to the EATS Act last week. Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-5th District, and Betty McCollum, D-4th District, who do not represent rural areas, were the only Minnesota lawmakers to sign that letter.

Since the EATS Act may not win enough support to be approved on its own or be included in the farm bill, Sevick said the Minnesota Pork Producers Council and its allies are seeking a compromise that could be passed by Congress.

“But we haven’t found it yet,” she said.

‘A patchwork of different laws’

Boerboom does not pen his sows during their pregnancy. But he does for about a week after they wean their piglets to allow them to “recover and destress” – and become pregnant again. Those pens give the sows 22 square feet of space, but Prop. 12 requires them to have 24 square feet of space.

In 2016, Boerboom began putting his pregnant sows in large group enclosures that hold 60 swine instead of gestation crates, a move he said he made to address concerns by large buyers of pork and pork products like Target, Hormel, Walmart and McDonalds who are seeking more humane production of the meat, eggs and milk.

But those group enclosures are still short of giving each sow the space Proposition 12 requires. So Boerboom has moved about 10% of his operation to a farm in South Dakota, where production is compliant with the California law.

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“If there’s enough consumer demand for more Proposition 12 type pork, we would make changes,” Boerboom said. “But the economics must make sense, we’d have to be paid for it.”

Massachusetts has also implemented a similar animal welfare law to the one in California. What Boerboom and other pork producers fear is that other states will follow suit, that they will be faced with a “patchwork” of different laws across the country that would demand different, and perhaps conflicting, requirements of the nation’s farmers.

“What’s to stop another state to put in regulations that are completely different?” asked Lori Stevermer, who with her husband Dale, raises pigs in Easton.

The Stevermer’s don’t have any sows, they instead raise about 2,000 young pigs until they are large enough to be processed. Yet Lori Stevermer said the California law will affect all hog farmers because it will result in higher production, packing and distribution costs.

She estimated that the price of a Proposition 12 compliant pen is $3,500. “Excess regulations can lead to huge costs,” she said.

Lori and Dale Stevermer
Lori and Dale Stevermer from Easton raise about 2,000 young pigs until they are large enough to be processed.

Letting animals stand up and turn around

While California accounts for 15% of domestic pork consumption, Wayne Pacelle, founder of the non-profit American Wellness Action, said Minnesota’s pork producers, as well as those across the nation, are under no obligation to change the way the treat their hogs.

“No one is forcing them to sell to California,” he said.

Pacelle also said that nearly 40% of U.S. breeding sows are already in group housing systems, rather than gestation crates. And he points to the demands by large food processors and supermarkets for more humanely produced meat.

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“They should be thinking of Walmart and McDonalds,” Pacelle said.

Pacelle said California and Massachusetts have exempted combined and canned pork products, which represent about 42% of pork sales to those states, meaning that nearly half of the pork sold in these two states need not come from farms providing more living space to the sows.

He also dismissed concerns that other states will follow California and Massachusetts in banning pork that comes from out-of-state farms that use too-small gestation crates, saying it is more likely they would ban the use of gestation crates in their own states instead, as Florida and New Jersey have done.

And in the end, Pacelle said, humane treatment of sows is good farming and good business.

“At some point, you have to understand they are going to lose the argument with the American public and let the animals stand up and turn around,” he said.