Around lunchtime on February 5 in Vale, South Dakota, a 33-year-old cattle rancher finished a morning of blogging, then stepped outside with a bottle of wine and a video camera.
"Hello, my name is Troy Hadrick. I'm a fifth-generation United States rancher in South Dakota," he ad-libbed. "I recently found out that Yellow Tail wines is going to be donating $100,000 to the wealthiest animal-rights organization in the world, the Humane Society of the United States — a group who is actively trying to put farmers and ranchers out of business in this country." Hadrick said he couldn't support such a company. "This is the only thing I know to do now with this last bottle of Yellow Tail wine that was in our house."
In his cowboy hat and Carhartt jacket, Hadrick cocked the bottle, flicked his wrist and sent the contents pouring to the snow-covered earth like a stream of piss.
"I hope you will do the same. Thank you for supporting American agriculture and the family farmers and ranchers in this country."
Five minutes later, with his 54-second Yellow Tail Fail clip posted to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, Hadrick finished his chores and headed with his family to the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo. Back online that night, he was shocked by the viewing stats for his first Internet video.
First it was 500. Then several thousand. The tally kept climbing. Within two weeks, the Australia-based wine giant announced that it was rescinding the remainder of its $300,000 pledge to the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society.
A week later, Tennessee-based Pilot Travel Centers announced that it would stop collecting Humane Society donations at its rest stops. Then Dallas-based Mary Kay cosmetics publicly clarified that a personal donation by an employee's wife to the Humane Society had been misconstrued by the group as a corporate sponsorship.
Hadrick's social-media sensation represented a tipping point in a battle that has seen food producers playing defense for nearly a decade — farmers vs. activists, agriculture vs. animal rights.
On one side are corporation- and family-owned farms that raise 10 billion animals a year, producing an affordable food supply for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
On the opposite side: the Humane Society, founded in 1954 as a protector of all animals, from dogs and cats to seals and whales to hens and cattle.
The nonprofit had a mild-mannered reputation until about a decade ago, when its president and chief executive officer, Wayne Pacelle, launched an "End Factory Farming" campaign to wipe out the practice of lifelong livestock confinement in densely packed or restrictive crates and cages.
Rather than protesting or pulling stunts like those of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Humane Society has favored a political route. One strategy has been "shareholder activism": purchasing minority stakes in publicly traded businesses such as Steak 'n Shake, then pressuring management to alter its buying practices.
But the group's primary strategy is more direct: Ask American voters if, in Pacelle's words, "animals built to move should be allowed to move."
Pacelle got the first so-called factory-farm law passed in Florida eight years ago via a ballot initiative. He has since chalked up wins in six additional states, and last year lawmakers introduced copycat legislation in four more states.
For a long time, the ag industry didn't seem to see a way to fight back. But within the past year, through social media, influence peddling and, most recently, pre-emptive political maneuvering, farmers big and small have begun to circle the wagons to protect their livelihoods.
The continuing battle raises questions: Who should decide what we put on our plates? Politicians? The 2 million farmers and ranchers who produce the food? Or the 307 million Americans who buy it?