Around about the lunch hour in Vale, South Dakota, on February 5, a 33-year-old cattle rancher finished a morning of blogging, then stepped outside with a bottle of wine and a Flip video camera.
"Hello, my name is Troy Hadrick. I'm a fifth-generation United States rancher in South Dakota," the man ad-libbed to the camera while standing amid a small clutch of cattle. "I recently found out that Yellow Tail wines is going to be donating $100,000 to the wealthiest animal-rights organization in the world, the Humane Society of the United States — a group who is actively trying to put farmers and ranchers out of business in this country. That being said, I cannot and will not support a company who is doing such a thing. This is the only thing I know to do now with this last bottle of Yellow Tail wine that was in our house."
In his cowboy hat and Carhartt jacket, Hadrick paused to cock the bottle of white at shoulder height, flick his wrist and send the contents pouring to the snow-covered earth like a stream of piss.
"I hope you will do the same," he concluded. "Thank you for supporting American agriculture and the family farmers and ranchers in this country."
Five minutes later, his 54-second "Yellow Tail Is Now Fail" clip posted to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, Hadrick finished his chores and skedaddled with his family to the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo. Back online that night, he was shocked at the viewing stats for his maiden voyage on Internet video.
First it was 500. Then several thousand. The tally kept climbing until, as Jim Klinker, the Arizona Farm Bureau's chief administrative officer, terms it, "Yellow Tail done turned its tail and run!"
Within two weeks the Australia-based wine giant announced it was rescinding the remainder of its $300,000 pledge to the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society.
The frustration shared by Hadrick and others had been bottled up for some time, but not in recent memory had a Humane Society donor buckled under such public pressure. Only a week later, Tennessee-based Pilot Travel Centers announced it would stop collecting Humane Society donations at its chain of roadway rest stops. Then the Dallas-based Mary Kay cosmetics company publicly clarified that a personal donation by an employee's wife to the Humane Society had been misconstrued by the group as a corporate sponsorship.
Hadrick's social-media sensation seemed to represent a tipping point in a battle that has had modern food producers playing defense for nearly a decade. It's farmers vs. activists. Agriculture vs. animal rights.
On one side: a phalanx of corporation- and family-owned farms that operate on large economies of scale, raising 10 billion animals a year and producing an affordable food supply for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
On the opposite side: the Humane Society, founded in 1954 as a protector for all animals, from dogs and cats to seals and whales to hens and cattle.
Never known for radical tendencies, the nonprofit had a mild-mannered reputation when it came to farm animals until its president and chief executive officer Wayne Pacelle grabbed the bull by its horns about a decade ago and launched an "End Factory Farming" campaign to wipe out the practice of lifelong livestock confinement in densely packed or restrictive crates and cages.
Under Pacelle's direction there have been no protests, no threats to human life or other such fur-flinging, none of the shock and awe that has earned notoriety for other animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Instead the Humane Society has favored a more political route. One strategy has been that of "shareholder activism": purchasing minority stakes in publicly traded businesses such as Steak 'n Shake, then pressuring management to alter its buying practices.
But the group's primary m.o. is even more direct: Ask American voters whether, in Pacelle's words, "animals built to move should be allowed to move."
Pacelle (pronounced puh-cell-ee), who got the first so-called factory farm law passed in Florida eight years ago via a ballot initiative, has since chalked up wins in six additional states. Others are taking note: Last year lawmakers in four more states introduced copycat legislation.
Groups like the National Rifle Association have been using the political system for decades with a lot of success, observes Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and author of the seminal Animal Liberation, published in 1975. "I think the Humane Society finally thought: We're as big as them in terms of public support; why don't we use some of that political clout?"
The state-by-state offensive is considered far more winnable than getting a law passed through congressional agriculture committees or a regulation adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture. "[That agency is] concerned primarily with food safety," Marcia Kramer, legislative director of the Chicago-based animal-advocacy group National Anti-Vivisection Society, says of the USDA. "It's easier to convince a voting population that this should be changed than a committee and an industry whose livelihood depends on producing as much as fast as they can and for the least possible cost."
For a long time, the ag industry didn't seem to see a way to slap away the Humane Society's whip hand. But within the past year, through social media, influence peddling and, most recently, preemptive political maneuvering, farmers big and small have begun to circle the wagons to protect their livelihood.
In Ohio last year, for instance, commodity groups organized to pass a ballot measure instituting a politically appointed board with regulatory authority over all farm-animal welfare issues. The tactic was a direct response to the Humane Society's announcement that it intended to make Ohio its next battleground.
This year lawmakers in at least nine other states are considering adopting similar boards.
It won't be possible for the Humane Society to win over the entire nation via its current tactic, because 26 U.S. states don't permit ballot initiatives. As the nonprofit continues to strategize, Pacelle is tight-lipped on details. "It's like chess," he says. "You have to see what the other guy does before you make your move."