Personal freedoms have been paramount to the landscape of important issues for Ventura County in 2008.

A proposed prisoners’ healthcare facility in Camarillo has sparked debate over the extent of medical care the incarcerated should receive compared to the free. The well being and safety of the victims of crime is the subject of a state measure on ballots next month. And famously, voters will decide in November if homosexual marriage should be legalized in California.

It will also be up to Californians across the state if similar rights should extend to our overlooked animal brethren when Proposition 2 comes up for vote. While the practice of free range farming and the imposition of fewer restrictions on animals raised for food have increased in practice over the past few years, Prop. 2 would set similar standards into law.

If passed, farmers across the state will have a 2015 deadline to comply with new practices confining their animals less, allowing them to stand up, move around and spread their wings and limbs more freely. It is seen by proponents as critical to the ongoing shift away from the cramped and inhumane world of mass market, factory farming.

Opponents maintain that Prop 2, a proposed addition to the state’s health and safety code, will do just the reverse, raising the likelihood of disease transmission among poultry birds — California’s main contribution to the meat industry — and the eggs they lay.

“I’m absolutely opposed to it,” states Dr. Nancy Reimers, a member of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians in Modesto County. “If Prop 2 were to pass, it would threaten animal and human health.”

With Prop 2 in place, Reimers contends, the rise in the risk of salmonella and avian flu would be undeniable. Contrary to the cramped indoor quarters of a factory farming scenario, the proposition, for example, calls for 5 square feet per bird within cages, compared to the standard 1.5 square feet. This forces more birds to be put outside, according to Reimers, exposing them to wild birds and a higher risk of the flu. These diseases can pass on to humans.

A cage-free environment, where eggs can come into contact with ground parasites and/or feces, increases the risk of salmonella, Reimers said, negating standards set forth by the state’s egg quality assurance program, which ensures eggs stay separate from germs.

So when it’s said the price of eggs has gone up, believe it. According to Reimers, all these factors tied into Prop. 2 will play into escalated costs on the next visit to the dairy section of the supermarket. The cheaper eggs, she says, could come from other sources where there are high incidences of salmonella outbreaks.

“If Prop. 2 were to pass, we’d be forced to rely on eggs from other states and Mexico,” she said. Not to mention, “It would put California’s family farmers out of business.”

Maybe so, but that’s already been the case for the farming industry as a whole, added to the weakened economy, says one Ventura free-range poultry rancher, who wished to remain anonymous as one of the last of the dying breed of diminishing family egg farmers countywide.

According to the farm owner, risk of illness comes from conditions largely within a farmer’s quality control.

“Most viruses or bird diseases are caught through the air or through dirty water with too much bacteria,” he said.

As far as catching avian flu, he said, chickens and the like raised for poultry face a bigger risk: their role as prey. Regularly, the biggest problem with free-range birds is predatory animals who eat them: hawks, owls, bobcats, even bears.

But even when those problems are in check, the proposition still threatens the livelihood of the struggling farm industry. According to another poultry farmer from San Diego, Prop. 2 plays directly into supply and demand — free range is more costly to operate, market prices on eggs go up, and people are unwilling to pay any more than they have to for food in strapped financial times.

“We’ve taken two-thirds of the birds out of our houses, and we can’t compete with other producers,” says Ryan Armstrong of Armstrong Family Farms. “The eggs we produce are going to cost so much, nobody’s going to buy them.”

Going free-range was once a viable option for Armstrong, who has since scaled such production back to an almost niche level — 60,000 hens, a mere one percent of his entire farm, are free-range.

For the farmers, egg production is all California really has left of animal husbandry in the crop-dominated agricultural world here. According to Armstrong, a few thousand swine will feel the result of a Prop. 2 voted in; veal production is virtually nonexistent. That leaves poultry farmers.

Dave Kranz of the state farm bureau said the biggest California egg producers are in the central and southernmost regions: Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Stanislaus and San Bernardino counties. There are 200 statewide.

So what would be Ventura County’s concern with the legislation? For one, if the agriculturally brave ever decided to set up camp within the county limits with Proposition 2 in place, it better be worth the money.

“Livestock and poultry operations tend to require lots of space. Anything that requires lots of space in Ventura County becomes very expensive, very quickly,” says John Krist, head of the farm bureau’s county division. “You don’t get a lot of return per acre.”

The farm bureau, Krist notes, opposes the measure, if only because it takes a sentimental – albeit a very important — issue and places it into the elections arena where it doesn’t belong.

“The initiative process is not a very good way to set agricultural policy. It doesn’t lend itself to addressing complicated issues,” he said. “This is more an emotion-driven campaign. That’s not an appropriate way to set business operations.”

Krist continued, “The farm bureau doesn’t condone inhumane treatment of farm animals … but our take is that this is an activist-driven campaign not necessarily based on what is best or what is scientific. It’s the campaign initiative process.”

“Sentimental reasons,” Armstrong puts it succinctly. “So they can sit there and put a little picture of a pig or veal on their signage.”

Heartfelt or not, it’s what consumers expect, says Jennifer Fearing, manager of the Yes on Prop 2 campaign. Changing times, and a gravitation and awareness toward more humane treatment of animals, requires a change in legislation.

“Californians want to know the animals they eat for food are treated humanely, especially when it costs so little to do so,” she said.

Why the resistance? “It’s a desire to hold on to the status quo,” she says. And an over-exaggeration of the monetary implications, Fearing notes; it would only cost a penny more per produced egg.

Is California behind the curve on enacting better laws calling for better treatment of animals? According to Fearing, with Prop. 2 it would be the fifth state to do so; Florida, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado have all adopted similar legislatures.

The campaign has been carried out with the best of intentions for everyone. That means humans, too.

“We don’t want to put anyone out of business,” said Lizza Reed, coordinator for the Yes on Prop. 2 Ventura County base. “It’s not about the animals; it’s about the people and the environment.”

Reed said there has been an overwhelming show of local support for the measure; four and a half months of campaigning and petitioning early this year at farmers markets, health food stores, post offices and other places in downtown Ventura produced 14,000 signatures on the campaign petition.

“There were some people who completely knew,” Reed said “I found a lot of people who were completely compassionate and aware in the issue and interested in changing it.”

Opponents are compassionate, too, but cautious about the ill effects Prop. 2 could cause.

“I think the people who support Prop. 2 are very well-intentioned,” Reimers said. “I know this proposition has huge risks for the health of our hens, the continued business of our farmers, as well as our consumers.”