The new, 10,000-square-foot "Today's Agriculture" exhibit at the Farm Show lets visitors get up close to piglets, chicks and veal calves, where the squeals are as likely to come from a delighted child as from the farm animal.

The intended purpose of the exhibit, though, is far from a petting zoo.

PennAg, a statewide trade group for agricultural businesses, got about 100 farms and other businesses together to help show what's going on at commercial farms. The farms, often known as factory farms, can house tens of thousands of animals.

"The anti-agriculture folks (say) we're afraid to show what's inside our barns, claiming a lot of things go on behind those walls that aren't positive," said PennAg executive vice president Christian Hurr.

Today’s Agriculture is a new exhibit at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, featuring a mini-farm, complete with animals inside a barn and planted fields of
Today's Agriculture is a new exhibit at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, featuring a mini-farm, complete with animals inside a barn and planted fields of crops located inside the exhibition hall. (Bil Bowden Photo)

Some farmers have been reluctant to discuss it and participate in the exhibit, Hurr said, but it became necessary to show what was going on to fight the negative perception.

"They are all authentic," he said of the animal housing displays. "They are all an exact replica of the large houses (the animals) are being produced in."

But animal welfare advocates and some York County residents who visited the exhibit aren't buying it, and are calling the exhibition misleading.

One Farm Show visitor from York County, Anne Harris of Manchester Township, said the exhibit didn't match up with her knowledge of factory farms.

"This is a fantasy setup," said Harris, who visited the exhibit on Saturday with her daughter.

In particular, Harris said she was drawn to the popular sow and piglets display. Noticing the sow was confined in a crate, Harris was told by a veterinarian from Country View Family Farms that the crate prevents the sow from crushing the piglets. Noticing the piglets' tails were cut off, Harris was told by the

veterinarian that it prevents the pigs from injuring each other.

"It was always fielded back as 'It's in their best interest,'" she said.

The information presented doesn't give the full picture, Harris said, compared to what she knows about factory farming.

Standard factory farm procedures usually do not involve anesthesia when cutting piglet tails and performing castration, according to animal welfare groups and factory farm officials. That sort of information wasn't included in responses by exhibit staff, she said.

"This was a misinformation campaign," Harris said.

Hurr said though some reactions "have been less than positive," most in the public have had a favorable response.

The information provided is all accurate, Hurr added. And telling the public every detail about factory farming practices, such as castration techniques, isn't practical, he said.

"It's unrealistic to put it all out there. There's volumes of info about the production of animals. People can draw their own conclusions," he said. "We're willing to have those discussions."

Animal rights: Hurr said he had a brief discussion about the exhibit with Paul Shapiro, senior director of farm animal protection for The Humane Society of the United States.

"We're willing to agree to disagree," Hurr said.

Shapiro gives PennAg credit for taking the step to acknowledge the pushback on factory farms and show the public some aspect of it.

"You have to respect that at least they are not showing Old McDonald's Farm," he said.

But the platitudes end there.

"If you go to the vet, and he says 'I'll neuter your dog.' And he pulls out a blade, with no pain killer at all, and rips out the testicles, that vet would lose his license and maybe go to jail," Shapiro said.

With a pig, "that's a standard industry practice," he said. There are no federal laws protecting factory farm animals, so methods such as electrocution, surgery without anesthesia and gassing are allowed, according to animal welfare advocates.

"That's the real concern, that they are not showing that" side of factory farming, Shapiro said of the exhibit. "Confining animals to the point they can barely move an inch does not represent good animal care."

Hurr said the factory farming practices are approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

"Everything is done with the goal of protecting the animal. Is it always pretty? No. But we don't apologize in any way for those practices," Hurr said. "Can (farmers) do it better? They are always looking to do better."

Another Farm Show visitor, Steve Izzo, a Chanceford Township resident, said he worries children visiting the exhibit will be led to believe all farms operate in such a fashion, with well-ventilated, well-lighted, clean pens.

Izzo visited the exhibit over the weekend, and thought it was "very benign" compared to his knowledge of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, based on conversations with experts and observations made from living near a CAFO.

"We're showing exactly what we do," Hurr said of the exhibit's accuracy.

'Complete double talk': Mercy for Animals, a Chicago-based animal welfare group, has an issue with the animal supplier for the exhibit.

Middletown-based Country View Family Farms is supplying the animals as well as a veterinarian to talk to the public. Mercy for Animals said Country View follows practices, such as putting pregnant pigs in gestation crates so they can barely move, that do not have animal interests at heart.

It's "complete double talk" for Country View to talk about the virtues of factory farming, said Mercy for Animals founder Nathan Runkle.

But Bob Ruth, president of Country View Family Farms, said his company has been forthright with the public and wanted the chance to show their side.

"We think it's very important to show people what we do so that with some of the myths that go on from people who are against agriculture ... people can see both sides of the story," Ruth said.

"We're truthfully telling them what we do," he said of the information presented. "I've been farming my entire life. I'm proud of what I do."

-- Reach Andrew Shaw at 505-5431 or ashaw@yorkdispatch.com, or on Twitter @ydblogwork.com.