Photo: Ray StanyardThe Legislature signed off on a $1.15 million settlement deal with Steve Basford this year.
A pig in a poke: Former pig farmer Steve Basford savors a bittersweet victory
Twelve years after the 'Pregnant Pigs' amendment upended Steve Basford's business, the ex-pig farmer savors a bittersweet victory.
Steve Basford first began raising pigs as part of a 4 - H / Future Farmers of America project when he was a boy. He put himself through college with the proceeds from his hog operation and eventually grew it into a thriving business that produced about 6,000 pigs a year.
It all came to an end in 2002 when Florida voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution banning use of gestation crates, small metal enclosures that limit the movement of pregnant sows.
Realizing that he would be unable to compete against farmers in other states who weren't restricted in the same way, Basford decided to quit pig farming. "I had spent 30 years developing the breeding lines, and I had to sell them for slaughter," the Taylor County pig farmer recalls.
The amendment, which passed 55% to 45%, affected only Basford and one other pig farmer in the state.
The ballot initiative was spearheaded by Floridians for Humane Farms, a coalition of animal rights groups that included the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Humane society of the United States and the Farm Sanctuary. Their decision to pursue a sow gestation crate initiative in Florida was a strategic one. Polling indicated Floridians were opposed to the practice — and Florida's pig farming industry was so tiny it was unlikely to be able to put up much of a fight.
Basford said representatives from the Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the United States had approached him around 1999 and asked if he'd join forces with them to try to convince the Legislature to pass a bill stamping out the use of gestation crates. "They said, We're going to do it anyway, and do you want to help us?' " recalls Basford, who declined to help, but he didn't have the money to try to stop them. "We were too busy producing pigs, trying to keep our farms going, to fight them."
The coalition ended up spending about $4 million, most of it raised outside the state, on its campaign to ban gestation crates in Florida — and the investment paid big dividends for the animal rights groups, with the success serving as a springboard for a national movement.
"Before Amendment 10 passed, there wasn't a single state in the country that had prohibited any standard farming practice. None — I mean a barren landscape. Pretty much, on animal factories, you could do basically anything you wanted to animals for the most part," says Paul Shapiro, a spokesperson at the Humane Society of the United States.
Since the passage of Amendment 10 in 2002, Shapiro points out, 10 states have passed similar laws prohibiting not only cruelty to pigs, but also to egg-laying hens, calves, ducks and geese, dairy cows and other animals. It also caused big players in the pork industry, such as Smithfield Foods, to consider alternatives to gestation crates. Smithfield has vowed to eliminate the crates on company-owned farms by 2017 in favor of group housing arrangements for pregnant sows.
In 2012, McDonald's became the first major restaurant chain to ask all its suppliers to end the use of gestation crates. Other major pork buyers, such as Wendy's, Burger King, Costco and Safeway followed suit.
While some sows ended up in more spacious housing as a result of the amendment, Basford's ended up in the slaughterhouse.
To comply with the law, Basford says he would have had to convert to group housing of his sows — a change that would have required him to spend $300,000 on three new barns. That would have reduced the efficiency of his operation, he says.
Basford said it took him until about July 2003 to get rid of all his pigs — and the financial hit was tough to endure. "It's pretty tough to see it snatched away from you right at the point where I had two boys starting college, the time you think you need the money the most."
Basford's wife went back to work, and Basford refinanced his farm. He then cashed out a life insurance policy and began buying perennial peanut sprigs. "Then we took all the land we'd been producing corn on to feed the pigs and started planting perennial peanuts, which is the alfalfa of the South."
Though there's high demand for perennial peanut hay in the South, the transition took awhile, and Basford had to find other work in the meantime. He and a son bought some dilapidated houses that they fixed up and sold. He also began hauling freight with his semi. "We did anything we could to make a dollar," he says.
Through his local lawmakers, Basford submitted a compensation claim to the Legislature asking the state to pay $1.35 million for the loss of his business. Twice (in 2004 and 2005) the Legislature passed bills to compensate Basford and twice Jeb Bush vetoed the funding.
In 2010, Basford filed an "inverse condemnation" lawsuit against the state, arguing that the change in law brought about by the citizen initiative resulted in a "taking" of his farm equipment. Jackson County Circuit Judge John L. Fishel agreed, as did an appeals court, that the passage of the new law amounted to a governmental taking and awarded the former hog farmer more than $500,000.
State lawmakers made good on the judgment during the 2014 legislative session, appropriating $1.15 million, which includes interest and legal fees, to settle all of Basford's claims. Gov. Rick Scott signed off on the settlement.
As Basford looks to expand his perennial peanut production, he's relieved to have some closure on the pregnant pigs chapter of his life.
"I'm just thankful we finally are getting some resolution," says Basford. "The funds will be put to good use. It will not make me rich, (but) I know that the banker's satisfied. I told him, 'One day I'm going to come pay you off.' I said, 'I may have to come back the next week and borrow something else, but there's going to be a few days there where I don't owe you anything.' "
While Amendment 10 led to widespread changes in how pigs and other farm animals are treated, the ballot initiative also had a lasting impact on the Florida political process. The so-called "Pregnant Pigs" amendment was ridiculed for trivializing the Constitution — and ended up becoming a poster child for reforming Florida's petition process. In 2006, with the backing of then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, GOP state lawmakers placed an amendment on the ballot requiring a 60% affirmative vote, or supermajority, for approval of constitutional amendments.