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Gene Gregory and Wayne Pacelle are the odd couple of American agriculture.
"We were adversaries. Some might say bitter adversaries,"
says Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Pacelle's organization says it wants to end factory farming. So Gene Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers, which represents most of the country's biggest egg farmers, used to think that there was no point even talking to Pacelle. "Why would you want to have a conversation with someone who wants to eliminate your business?" he says.
These days, though, they're not just having a conversation; they're allies, walking shoulder to shoulder into offices on Capitol Hill, asking Congress to approve new rules for egg farmers.
They spent much of this past Tuesday in these lobbying meetings. But they arrived there from very different places — starting with breakfast.
Pacelle, the Humane Society president, woke up in a trendy part of the nation's capital and started the day with a Very Berry smoothie with soy milk. No ham, no eggs, as always.
"I made a decision a long time ago that I was not going to consume animal products, because I was concerned about what was going on on factory farms," he says.
Gregory, meanwhile, lives in Georgia, in the suburbs outside Atlanta. He got up really early on Tuesday so he could catch his flight to Washington. So breakfast was a rush.
"My wife keeps hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator. So I had a hard-boiled egg and a glass of juice before I left the house," he says.
Of course he'd eat an egg. Gregory has been connected to the egg industry for about 50 years, either running a farm himself or representing other farmers.
Pacelle has been among that industry's fiercest critics. He took aim, specifically, at the industry's standard practice of crowding chickens into long lines of wire cages, with hundreds of thousands of birds in a single chicken house.
"I said that these factory farms were cruel and inhumane, no question about that," he says. "We're passionate about this issue. We want to see changes within this industry."
Over the past decade, these two men spent millions of their organizations' dollars fighting over proposals to ban the cages. In a series of states, notably California, the egg producers lost badly.
Then, last summer, they did something unexpected.
Gregory sent a message to Pacelle through an intermediary: "Can the two of us just talk?" And Pacelle saw an opportunity.
"We could fight the United Egg Producers for another 10 or 15 years, and spend millions of dollars on both sides. But the other option is, we could sit down together and figure out a pathway that's good for industry and better for animals," he says.
Within a few months, the two sides came up with a compromise. They agreed to jointly lobby Congress for a law that would allow farmers to keep their chickens in cages, but the chickens would get twice as much space, plus perches and "nest boxes" where they could lay their eggs. (Last month, I visited a chicken house in California that already has these cages.)
Pacelle and Gregory agreed that the new cages and nest boxes would be phased in over 15 years. That's to avoid chaos in the industry and "ensure that we always have a sufficient supply of eggs at a fair price," says Gregory.
For both Gregory and Pacelle, there's a calculation behind this joint venture. For the egg producers, it's a lot better than the growing patchwork of state regulations that they were already facing. For the Humane Society, it's a way to change conditions on farms in a lot of states that weren't likely to regulate the egg industry at all.
But at this point, there also seems to be a bit more involved than those calculations. It may not be a close personal friendship. But despite all that divides them — different generations, backgrounds and dietary preferences — there seems to be genuine respect.
"I've found him to be a man of his word," Gregory says, speaking about the Humane Society president. "It doesn't have to be his way or no way. And he's not trying to eliminate our business, or anybody's in animal agriculture. He just wants to see improvements made."
Pacelle, for his part, says Gregory has helped him understand the pressures involved in trying to make a living by producing food — "the daily struggles that a lot of farmers go through, economically. They were kind of in a race with others, in a competitive environment, to build efficiencies, and this is how it went."
The former adversaries will need each other to get their proposal approved. It's an unusual plan — as unconventional as the partnership that hatched it. No one knows whether Congress will find that appealing, or perhaps suspicious.