The federal government's plan to identify farms and track livestock strikes some members of the Island agricultural community as intrusive and misguided, although others view it as necessary for containing any future outbreak of an infectious animal disease.
The program, called the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), is a response to concern about diseases like avian influenza, more commonly known as "bird flu," and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow disease."
State agriculture officials, who are helping gather the information, defend the program as essential to stop the spread of infection by fast-moving diseases that threaten food supplies. In such cases, failure to quickly trace and isolate animals and their offspring could threaten entire segments of the agricultural industry.
In December of 2003, the first case of BSE was discovered in the United States. A cow in Washington State was found to be infected. The animal was traced to a herd imported from Canada, but not before more than 50 countries completely or partially banned import of American beef.
NAIS is an initiative of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Massachusetts Division of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) is gathering information for the program through a cooperative agreement with the federal government.
The first phase in the program is identifying all the places where livestock are kept, including farms, stables, veterinary clinics, fairs, zoos, and scientific laboratories.
The second phase is individual identification, where each animal is permanently marked.
The third phase is tracking, where the movements of each animal from owner to owner would be recorded.
State authorities say they have already collected a large amount of information on the location of farms and livestock, through the reports of local animal inspectors.
Before sharing that information with federal authorities, MDAR sent a letter to about 10,000 local agricultural sites offering livestock owners a chance to opt out of the data sharing arrangement. The letter said if notified in writing, state officials would not share the information with federal officials, though they will maintain the statistics in the state's computer database, as they now do.
The program has met some resistance. Mike Cahill, who administers the collection of data for the state, estimates that about 10 percent of farm owners object to the government gathering information about their livestock. "Certainly a small percentage of people definitely are opposed to the idea," said Mr. Cahill. "I can understand some of the concerns they have." He is careful to point out, however, that the state is working on only the first phase of the project, premises identification. Decisions about individual identification and tracking have not yet been made, and how those elements of the program will be implemented have not been decided. Also undecided is whether the state will have any role in the next phases of the federal program.
Allen Healy and Caitlin Jones, who operate Mermaid Farm on Middle Road in Chilmark, are among those who object to the animal ID project. They raise small herds of dairy cows and sheep, using organic farming techniques.
"I really hate an intrusion into our lives," said Ms. Jones. "We didn't actually get a letter, but we figured since we are inspected a lot, we are pretty much guaranteed to be on there, so we opted out."
Ms. Jones is concerned that the next phases of the program will mandate electronic tagging of the animals with a small implanted microchip, and tracking by global positioning satellites. "It's just the beginning," said Ms. Jones. "It's going to cost a lot of money to implement."
Ms. Jones's objections are also rooted in philosophical differences between small-scale agriculture and what she calls factory farms. While acknowledging the concerns about infectious animal disease, she says large-scale agriculture is where the concerns should be focused. If there is an outbreak of disease, she says she will have no problem tracing the ownership of her livestock.
"I have six cows total, so I'd have to be an idiot not to know," said Ms. Jones. "It concerns me, but for a small farm I don't think that's a real problem. I feel like we're really careful."
Elisha Smith has farmed most of his 84 years on the Vineyard, and he served for many years as chairman of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society. These days his Red Hill Farm on Edgartown Vineyard Haven Road is home to a small heard of beef cattle and some laying chickens. He also works land at three Chilmark farms, which he uses for hay and summer pastureland, so his livestock moves from place to place from season to season.
Mr. Smith sees nothing too intrusive in the animal ID program, and has not opted out. "I think it's a good thing," said Mr. Smith. "I've always had animals ear-tagged so you know where the animal is at any time. It won't hurt anything for everyone to know where every cow is."
Hard work and a little luck have kept Mr. Smith's animals healthy in recent times, but he had experience many years ago with an infectious epidemic. "I remember back when they first started to TB (tuberculosis) test them, way back in the '30's," said Mr. Smith. "There were 30-40 dairy farms here, and most of the them lost at least half their herds. The state was giving you $25 a head, and the federal government would give you $25."
While tuberculosis is no longer a threat, Mr. Cahill believes the information being gathered is essential to containing exactly that kind of an outbreak. The program's goal is to identify the source of an infection within 48 hours of discovery.
"What we're trying to do is share the information now, so we're not wasting three or four days sending data back and forth," said Mr. Cahill. Tracking an animal from birth is the only way to quickly isolate the source of a long gestating disease like BSE, he said, citing the 2006 case of a 10-year-old cow in Alabama that was found to have the disease. The effort to trace the origin of the cow took more than a month, involved 37 farms, and USDA investigators still could not determine the herd of origin.