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Consumer Reports

Farming community feels the effects of terrorist threats | (KRT) Travis Moser cannot afford to put up a steel fence to keep terrorists off his 330-acre dairy business in western Montgomery County, Pa. But he has dogs that bark.

Duane Hershey does not have an alarm system to monitor the perimeter of his farm in Chester County, Pa. That is what his neighbors are for.

And Phoebe Bitler cannot protect all of her farm in Berks County, Pa., but she will be watching closely if you decide to walk your dog across her field.

When the nation went back to Orange Alert last month, a special message went out to farmers in a letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reminding them that the terrorist threat goes far beyond buildings, bridges and airplanes.

"You are on the front line of defense for protecting America's food and agriculture," begins the list of tips at

Worried about terrorists trying to cripple the country's economy by attacking its $200 billion agricultural economy USDA Homeland Security officials are asking farmers to help.

The USDA warns farmers to watch for suspicious activity around their farms and feedlots; lock up their chemicals and fertilizers; conduct background checks on their farmhands; watch for strange diseases in their animals or crops; and cut back on access to the farms, even for school groups.

"You don't just get out of your car and go walking into the plant," said Bruce Schmucker, chief of the regulations and compliance division of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services. "Maybe (farmers) won't have the Brownie troop over to watch the sheep being shorn."

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Though the concept of agricultural terrorism, or "agroterrorism," has become a buzzword at the USDA and Department of Homeland Security, farmers and industry officials say their defenses were already raised against what they see as a greater threat - the accidental introduction of disease that could destroy them.

Since an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Great Britain in early 2001 wiped out more than 10 million animals, farmers have taken measures to prevent becoming the ground zero of a similar contagion here. Farmers need only look to California, where the USDA has slaughtered 3.5 million birds to try to contain an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease. Or to Canada, where a whole country is watching anxiously, hoping that the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy - the notorious mad cow disease - in a single cow does not spread.

"We've pretty much been encouraging biosecurity measures for years," said Mike Fournier, the Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension agent for Bucks County.

Farmers say they do not have the means to completely control their environment.

To anyone driving down into the Mosers' Spring Valley Farm, the point is evident. The public road is bordered by an aging wood-rail fence that barely keeps the cows in, let alone humans out. A government official "who was way too high up to know anything" suggested putting a chain-link fence around the 330-acre farm, Moser said.

"We did find that hilarious," said Moser, 28, who oversees a herd of 300 cows with his father, Gordon Moser , in a valley between the communities of Congo and Niantic in western Montgomery County.

For the farming community, the focus is on stopping the spread of disease, whether it arrives intentionally or accidentally.

"If somebody really wants to come along and do something to those animals, how are you going to stop it?" Fournier asked. "I don't think you're going to hire a security system and put someone out to watch the cows."

Before there was an Orange Alert, farmers were putting up "No Trespassing" signs around their farms; restricting visitors at their barns and feedlots; asking visitors to don plastic boots or wash their shoes in disinfectant; making sure they know whom they buy their livestock, feed and supplies from; and planning what to do and whom to call in case of a variety of disease outbreaks.

"Biosecurity is always on our front burner," Schmucker said.

Agroterrorism has provided a hook for the disaster-preparedness that Schmucker and others have been engaged in since well before Sept. 11, 2001. Traveling around the state, they have developed phone lists for people and resources.

The private sector is also preparing itself. The Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, based in Philadelphia, has trained farmers in public speaking, hoping the farmers themselves can go to the news media to explain things and soothe fears in case of a disease outbreak.

Nancy Halpern, director of the Division of Animal Health for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, said the state's many hobby farmers - who keep sheep, goats and llamas - need a reminder about biosecurity during times of heightened alert.

"Somebody who is doing this for a living and basing their livelihood on it is practicing biosecurity," she said.

No livestock industry controls its environs more thoroughly than swine producers, who have gradually tightened their biosecurity practices since farmers moved hogs inside starting in the late 1970s. Hog farms also strictly limit access to facilities and provide boots and coveralls to all visitors.

"It really has been fairly easy to just continue our vigilance as we have done in the past," said Bob Ruth, president of Pleasant Valley Foods, which controls 1 million pigs, most of which will end up at Hatfield Quality Meats in Montgomery County. "Before it became a buzzword, we have been concerned with access and vigilance and those kinds of things."

At the meat-processing end, the concern for terrorism directed at the food supply is somewhat higher. At Hatfield Quality Meats, managers have advised drivers to follow federal transportation department recommendations to keep their trucks locked and not to leave them unattended, said Dave Kolesky, vice president of human resources.

Without being specific, Kolesky said the company has stepped up security and the checking of vehicles coming to and going from the plant.

The threat of foreign terrorism does not occupy a large place in Duane Hershey's consciousness. He has 380 milking cows to worry about at his Ar-Joy Farm in Cochranville, Pa. He has workers practically around the clock. And he knows his neighbors will call him if they spot a strange car on the road.

"I don't think about that too much," he said. "We're always very aware of what's going on."

At the same time, his livelihood centers on keeping his cows healthy - from dipping their udders in iodine before and after milking to monitoring their milk output each day.

New Jersey's Halpern said farmers worry as much about domestic terrorists as foreign attacks. Hershey agreed, saying extremists in the animal-rights movement concerned him more than al Qaeda.

For Phoebe Bitler, a Berks County dairy farmer who acts as a speaker for the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, Orange Alert means she is a little more wary.

"We have some land close to housing developments. They walk dogs across our fields," she said. "Now I look at somebody, and I wonder: What are they doing?"

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services