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Chickens move about a coop at Petaluma Farms in Petaluma, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008. In an effort to eliminate caged chickens in egg production, Prop. 2 requires more space for hens that current cage-free producers say would put them out of business. (Mathew Sumner/San Mateo County Times)

PETALUMA

Steve Mahrt, a third-generation chicken farmer, runs one of the region's largest cage-free, egg-laying hen farms. The tens of thousands of birds on his 40-acre spread at the end of a country road live on a vegetarian diet, and antibiotics never pass through their beaks.

This pioneer of cage-free farming might seem a natural supporter of a November ballot initiative, Proposition 2, which, if passed, would effectively end in the confinement of egg-laying hens inside cages in California.

Instead, the ballot measure has him lying awake at night, worried that what he calls its vague language will spell the end of his business.

"This whole thing could possibly fall apart in front of my eyes," said Mahrt, whose cheerful expression becomes clouded with concern when discussing Proposition 2.

The Humane Society of the United States, the initiative's main backer, regards the worries as needless and states that the measure only aims to end the practice of confining egg-laying hens inside cramped cages so small the animals can't spread their wings.

The initiative requires that veal calves, pigs and hens be raised in housing which allows them enough space to lie down, turn around, stand up and fully extend limbs, including wings. Proposition 2 almost exclusively affects egg producers, as California pork and veal producers announced in 2007 that they are voluntarily ending the use of confining crates, according to Jennifer Fearing, manager of the "Yes on Prop. 2" campaign.

To allay the concerns of cage-free operators like Mahrt — who owns Petaluma Farms and sells his eggs under the label "Judy's Farm Fresh Eggs," among others — the Humane Society hired two lawyers to analyze the ballot language. Violations of the measure, if passed by voters in November, would become a criminal act.

One concluded unequivocally that no court adhering to logic and legal precedent would ban cage-free egg farming under the initiative.

But to be on the safe side, the other lawyer — a former Fresno County district attorney named Ed Hunt — advised adding a clear exemption to the ballot argument, "to foreclose any argument that this measure criminalizes cage-free production," he wrote in a July 18 letter. The opinion came two months before last Thursday's deadline for altering ballot arguments.

No such exemption, however, was added to the ballot argument, which appears in voter pamphlets.

"Real estate in the ballot argument is extremely valuable," explained Jon Lovvorn, a Washington D.C. attorney representing Humane Society of the United States, which is also based in Washington D.C.

"Our decision was to make that a public statement," Lovvorn continued, describing how campaign literature conveys the message that cage-free operators won't be affected by the measure.

Given what's at stake, though, campaign pledges are scant assurance to many egg producers investing in cage-free facilities. And the sometimes violent opposition to commercial use of animals by certain groups only adds to Mahrt's concerns.

He now hires a security guard to protect his farm, his wife and four sons, and his employees, after incendiary devices were placed in five of his trucks in January 2000, destroying one of them. The Animal Liberation Front took credit for that attack, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, after issuing a statement that Mahrt's operation "enslaves chickens for their eggs."

"I was cage-free, and they still did that," Mahrt said. "This is really scary."

Another egg producer, Armstrong Egg Farms in San Diego County, also objected to what it called the measure's "ambiguous" language.

"That's what they say, but who's to say that after this passes, they'll say 'Well, this is what we mean,' " asked Ryan Armstrong, the 28-year-old co-owner of the farm, which has 600,000 egg-laying hens in cages and 60,000 cage free.

But the proposition's proponents steered away from spelling out exactly how much space should be allotted per bird, and instead only specified the natural movement these animals must be permitted while confined.

"We didn't give a specific space requirement in order to give producers flexibility," explained Fearing. "We want to give producers an opportunity to innovate."

Current cage-free housing is acceptable under Proposition 2, Fearing insisted, since it doesn't require that all birds be able to simultaneously spread their wings. The ballot language doesn't add that caveat, but Fearing said "there's no need to be that specific."

But that lack of specifics worries Mahrt, who states that a strict interpretation of that limb-spreading requirement would require reducing his flock size by two-thirds, an economically impossible scenario. His eight cage-free barns house between 6,000 and 12,000 chickens each.

One of the legal opinions sought by the Humane Society, however, concurred with Fearing's position. The letter, written by former U.S. Attorney James Arguelles, states his opinion that the ballot measure "does not set any sort of requirement that all animals must be able to stretch their wings or limbs simultaneously."

Furthermore, legal precedent clearly establishes that a statute's terms must be given "a reasonable meaning," he added, and no court could reasonably envision a scenario in which all the chickens in a flock would spread their wings at the same moment.