Papers Please!

Big Farmer is watching


Brandi Calderwood and her steer, Walker, were thrown out of the Colorado State Fair last year—not because Calderwood had cheated but because she hadn't registered Walker with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is rolling out its National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The aim is to tag and track every farm animal in America, including llamas, elk, and deer. Ultimately, every Bessie, Daisy, and Wilbur will wear a unique 15-digit radio frequency ID tag. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) claims the tags are necessary to help the feds track down disease outbreaks, either natural or bioterroristic, within 48 hours.

Small farmers object that the NAIS is an expensive paperwork nightmare that requires them to inform Washington every time they sell a cow or a sheep. They also note that they are competing against big feedlot operators who sell whole herds and aren't required to register and track individual animals.

The USDA is careful to claim the program is "voluntary at the federal level," and indeed, the Bush administration failed when it tried to ram through a mandatory version in 2005. But the agency has other ways of compelling compliance. It offers performance grants to states and farm groups to enroll farmers; groups such as the National FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers of America) and the Colorado 4-H Clubs have already signed up. The Colorado State Fair board also voted to require that all 4-H Club and FFA members provide proof of NAIS registration to participate in livestock auctions and other activities. Hence Calderwood and Walker's ejection.

Colorado State Fair officials eventually paid Calderwood what Walker would have earned at auction, and the Colorado House of Representatives Agriculture Committee is considering legislation to overturn the registration requirement. Adding insult to injury, the White House admits that the eight head of cattle President Bush runs on his Crawford, Texas, ranch are not registered with the USDA.