A coalition of activist organizations and individuals is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative in Sonoma County. This initiative targets “concentrated animal feeding operations” and “factory farms” in the area, hoping to phase out such operations. Activists have said that this would affect 50 to 60 local agricultural operations. Area farmers contend that the initiative would have much farther-reaching effects. Activists hope that the initiative could spur a national chain reaction of similar activist initiatives.

“There’s absolutely a fear in the state and I’m sure the nation,” said Dayna Ghirardelli, the Executive Director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, “With different interest groups trying to kind of force their way of thinking onto others, and this could potentially become a threat to other areas.”

Activists agree such a spread is likely. “We certainly hope that other initiatives will follow,” said Cassie King of Direct Action Everywhere. “But, ideally, they would be really led by people in their own community.” A Berkely-based organization, Direct Action Everywhere is known for its controversial protests and is a major component of the coalition working on the Sonoma County ballot initiative.

California has the dual distinctions of being the United States’ leading agricultural state and being one of the strongest bastions for animal rights activists. A 2018 popular vote passed Proposition 12 with almost 63% support. This set new requirements for farmers to provide more space for breeding pigs, egg-laying hens, and calves raised for veal. The new requirements met challenges but were upheld by the Supreme Court, and are now law.

Activists hope for a similar success with this new ballot initiative, and local farmers see the potential for another shakeup. “The face of our entire county could change,” says Ghirardelli.

Things don’t always go the way that activists would hope, however. Back in 2022, Direct Action Everywhere pushed for a bill targeting similar farming practices on a statewide level, but the bill never made it out of committee. Arguing that concentrated animal feeding operations are cruel, damaging to the environment, and potentially even threatening to public health, Direct Action Everywhere found itself strongly opposed by California’s farmers. The defeat of the 2022 statewide action led to this new effort being more focused on Sonoma County.

Farmers in Sonoma County have said that the ballot initiative proposes a troubling definition for concentrated animal feeding operations, which may become a legal precedent if the initiative were to pass. They say that the definition would extend to family-owned, organic ranches and dairies.

Given until March 5 to collect 20,000 signatures for the ballot initiative, activist organizers succeeded in this margin with a speed that worries Sonoma County’s farmers. The signature requirement has already been met well over a month in advance. Activists are continuing to collect signatures as a way of spreading awareness and campaigning for the initiative, which now seems will inevitably appear on area ballots.

While Sonoma County is best known for its wine industry, there is also a significant ranching and dairy presence. The area boasts more than one thousand agricultural operations.