SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — November 25, 2019, was a brutal day for Sullivan County’s foie gras farmers—Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG) and La Belle Farms. The problem was not in the …
SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — November 25, 2019, was a brutal day for Sullivan County’s foie gras farmers—Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG) and La Belle Farms. The problem was not in the numbers. Both businesses were sailing along, generating record-breaking profits, somewhere in the vicinity of $50 million. The problem was in New York City.
On January 24, New York City council member Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan) had introduced a bill (Intro 1378) “in relation to banning the sale or provision of certain force-fed poultry products,” namely “foie gras” (French for fatty liver), the raison d’etre for Hudson Valley and La Belle’s existence.
Under attack was their lifeblood, the New York City market, one-third of the farmers’ yearly revenue. The foie gras ban, as Rivera’s bill was dubbed, aimed straight for the heart of the farms. It put hundreds of Sullivan County jobs at risk and affected tens of ancillary businesses, threatening the tax base.
Behind Rivera were the powerful Humane Society of the United States and the Brooklyn-based activist organization Voters for Animal Rights (VFAR). Early on, VFAR’s website promised that not a single New York City job will be lost by passing a ban to prohibit the sale of foie gras from force-fed birds.
In Sullivan County, those were fighting words. “If you want a foie gras war, you’ll have it,” Sergio Saravia, who owns La Belle with his two brothers and Herman Lee, told Rivera and the city council, but they felt no one was listening.
On November 25, 2019, the bill was sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-NYC) for his signature. And with a swipe of a pen, like a slash across a duck’s neck, foie gras was outlawed in New York City. Date effective: November 25, 2022. Hudson Valley and La Belle were doing business in the Big Apple on borrowed time.
At the core of the conflict is gavage, the practice of force-feeding male Moulard ducks and engorging their livers up to 10-fold the normal size. The process involves a rubber feeding tube, which for two to three weeks before slaughter, three times a day, is inserted down a duck’s gullet, filling it with feed. This cultivates the fatty liver, considered “the supreme fruit of gastronomy” by connoisseurs worldwide. Gavage, critics say, damages the esophagus and diseases the liver. Without gavage, foie gras cannot be produced en masse.
To Rivera and her supporters, gavage causes ducks “extreme pain and suffering,” is “egregiously cruel,” and “gruesome.” To the foie gras farmers, it is an ancient practice utilizing new and evolving technology to minimize harm.
Marcus Henley has worked at Hudson Valley for 20 years and is vice president of operations. “The NYC politicians are sensitive to animals (or anthropomorphizing) and mostly well-intentioned but with a limited understanding of animal husbandry,” Henley said. “Almost everything you hear about foie gras is verifiably wrong.”
“These animals have to be wholesome. These animals have to survive. If the ducks are not cared for, if you don’t have a good liver, you just throw away all your profit,” Saravia said.
In 2014, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) conducted their last literature review of animal welfare concerns surrounding the science of foie gras farming. As of October 29, 2021, their spokesperson said, “There is no AVMA policy or position on foie gras production.”
Small consolation to an economy on the chopping block. Sullivan County, a mostly rural county with under 80,000 residents, boasts only a handful of businesses that employ more than 250 workers. By those standards, Hudson Valley and La Belle are among its largest employers, together counting between 300 and 400 farmworkers.
“The foie gras farms are an important business in our area,” says NYS Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (D-100, Sullivan and Orange counties), who sits on the assembly’s committee on agriculture. “A lot of people stand to lose their jobs,” including employees of ancillary businesses.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle are America’s biggest foie gras farmers, producing 90 percent of the nation’s foie gras. Tens of Sullivan County businesses are on their balance sheets. Add it all up—the jobs, the taxes, the sales in local stores—and in 2019, an estimated $150 million was circulating in Sullivan County because of Hudson Valley and La Belle.
Three generation of Nearings have run Cochecton Mills, a company their grandfather bought in 1956. They supply 100 percent of the feed for the ducks at Hudson Valley Foie Gras and La Belle Farms. La Belle alone, the smaller of the two, requires grain for 182,000 ducks per year. It’s a healthy business for a feed company.
Dennis Nearing, the family patriarch, was 11 when his father bought the business. “It was an exciting time,” he said. “I liked animals, farming. But it’s a very hard, complicated business.”
Today, Cochecton Mills is close to losing two mainstay accounts, and the Nearings don’t like it.
“The foie gras farms are by far our biggest customer. They amount to about 30 percent of our business. We have two guys in the mill mixing and managing their feed. We have seven drivers. Twenty-five to 30 percent of their week is foie gras,” said Todd Nearing, Dennis’ son, who works closely with the foie gras farmers.
The looming ban hits far too close to the farm. In 2019, Cochecton Mills spent $1.2 million on new equipment to process food for the ducks, betting big on foie gras with substantial infrastructure investments.
“For a lot of us, life as we know it is threatened. We will lose jobs. It threatens our livelihood,” Nearing said.
Carlina Rivera and her staff were asked for a comment and one was not received by deadline.
On June 18, 2019, Rivera’s colleague Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), who chairs the council health committee, made clear where he stands. “I am proud of the pace at which New York City has been advancing animal welfare legislation in recent years.”
He has long been known as a friend to animals. In 2014, the city’s campaign finance board slapped the Levine campaign with an $8,686 fine for accepting improper contributions from New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS). NYCLASS is a non-profit animal rights group, and founded by Steve Nislick, a real estate developer.
“New York City,” Todd Nearing said, “should stay out of our game.”
This is Part One of a four-part series examining the effects of New York City’s foie gras ban on Sullivan County’s economy. In Part Two, “Waiting for Carlina,” more than 100 Sullivan County business owners and foie gras workers traveled to Manhattan to make their case before the NYC Council and left, as one worker put it, feeling “very disrespected.”
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