A legislative committee today amended state Sen. Jim Norman’s controversial bill banning photography “at or of” Florida farms, reducing the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor and making it only applicable to photos taken on farm property without the owner’s consent.

Norman, R-Tampa, drafted the bill at the request of Pasco County egg farmer Wilton Simpson, who produces 21 million eggs annually in Florida, in an effort to thwart animal-rights activists who covertly film farming operations to expose what they claim are often inhumane and unsanitary conditions.

Simpson, who was considered as a replacement for Norman on the ballot last November if Norman had remained stricken from the election, announced late last week his intention to run for state Senate as a Republican, filing papers for the seat currently held by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who will be leaving office in 2012 due to term limits.

Norman’s bill has a singular focus — to stop animal advocacy groups from recording images of farms.

The initial language was broad in scope and had many up in arms about the fact that it would have made roadside photography of cows grazing in a field a felony offense, in addition to imagery captured by airplanes or police officers.

Industrial agriculture operators insist that groups such as PETA or the Humane Society of the United States use images they capture to meet their own agenda, unfairly damaging the reputation of farmers across the board with the explicit and often gruesome videos groups such as theirs have released over the years.

Not all farmers agree on the law’s rationale, however. Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers, said that the more than 100 organic farmers he represents in the state have nothing to hide.

“I am sensitive to my colleagues at the Florida Farm Bureau, for instance, I work with them on other things,” Mesh says, “but generally organic producers are predominately smaller-scale, family-scale-type farming operations, and many of those farmers actively working their lands would say, ‘Sure, come on out, take whatever pictures you want. Ask me whatever questions about my production practices you want. If I can teach you if I can show you and educate citizens about the importance of agriculture I’m all for it.’”

“A lot of what you are seeing in this type of dichotomy and most of the factory type of livestock, like the [concentrated animal feeding operation], is historically the overcrowding of animals and people don’t want pictures taken of it,” he says. “It’s the PETA type people that have gone in and taken pictures, and to me, if you don’t want people knowing what you’re doing, and you don’t want community support, then you shouldn’t be doing it. If it’s not something you’re proud of, then why would you be doing it?”

“I think the Farm Bureau’s position is that sometimes in industrial animal agriculture there are things that are needed that the public just doesn’t understand,” he says. “I think there’s some validity to that, but you could educate the public as to why you do what you do and not say we’re doing this because of economy-of-scale issues and if we can produce a half a million pigs on a small piece of ground then it’s a big factor, it’s not a pig farm.”

Tommy Simmons is a third-generation organic farmer who has operated Bellevue Gardens Organic Farm in Archer, Fla., for 34 years. His hogs and cattle are free-range, meaning they have access to fresh pasture and the ability to roam. Simmons also grows vegetables in his integrated system. He says that farmers shouldn’t have anything to hide.

“It seems like it’s pretty much an infringement of an individual’s rights to not be able to take pictures of farms,” Simmons says. “Further than that, if they don’t have anything to hide, what are they worried about? It kind of flies in the face of reason to me.”

“Basically it boils down to bigger is not necessarily better,” he says. “Just because you’ve got numbers doesn’t mean that you’re doing things in a more efficient way, and certainly not in a way that is more conducive to healthy food, whether it be animals or vegetables. If you’re an industrial farmer, you’re trying to maximize the output by increasing the inputs and crowdedness of the situation. Just trying to put all of the inputs you possibly can into as small an area you possibly can, and trying to reap the benefits thusly.”

When asked about claims that his approach is more expensive and not economically viable, Simmons says there are costs associated with industrial agriculture’s approach that are not always taken into account.

“If expense in their concern, then the totality of the expense needs to be considered, and that has to do with the health effects upon the people that eat the industrialized food, as well as the health effects upon the environment,” he says. “And generally speaking, that’s never spoken to by the industrial people, because they don’t want to hear about that they’re not only providing a food product that’s not necessarily the best for the people but they’re also involved in polluting the planet. Those costs are not considered, and as far as I’m concerned those are the ultimate costs.”

Calls seeking comment from Sen. Norman and Wilton Simpson have not been returned.

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