FARMINGTON, Calif. — His wife calls it a "nightmare." But Guillermo Gonzalez is undeterred by a year that began with protesters trashing their new restaurant and may end with a state law banning the signature item on their menu.
Gonzalez makes and markets foie gras, an expensive delicacy made from duck or goose liver. He does it at his farm in this Central Valley town, one of three places in the country -- and the only one in California -- that produce the luxury item.
Unfortunately for him, this distinction has thrust him into the center of one of this year's most unusual legislative debates: whether to ban force-feeding of ducks and geese, a method used to make the French delicacy, which is often served as a spread.
To the horror of some chefs and connoisseurs, animal rights activists may soon win a significant victory in Sacramento. The Assembly is expected to approve a Senate-passed bill to ban force-feeding, which animal activists say amounts to cruelty. The nation's two other farms that produce foie gras, in the Hudson Valley, are facing a similar fight in the New York state Legislature.
A sticking point in the California debate was lawmakers' concern that a ban would drive Gonzalez out of business. That persuaded the bill's author, outgoing Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), to accept an amended proposal, which Gonzalez called "the height of civility." It would allow Gonzalez 7 1/2 years to retool his business and would indemnify him against several lawsuits brought by animal rights groups.
Rather than use his farm for another purpose, as animal protectionists envisioned in agreeing to the delay, Gonzalez, 52, hopes to use the reprieve to prove the ducks do not suffer. Otherwise, he may alter the feeding process so his opponents accept it as sufficiently humane.
"They are giving us a chance to present all the scientific evidence we have," said Gonzalez, clad in khakis and a button-down shirt, his dark bushy hair flecked with gray. "After the 7 1/2 years, there are a broad spectrum of possibilities. We need time, but we're not narrow-minded."
Saving the duck farm may turn out to be a tough job, even for a businessman who has survived troublesome ventures making foie gras -- "fatty liver" -- on two continents and in three languages.
"In my opinion, there's no way to produce the same product in a humane way, but I'm willing to be surprised," said Laurie Siperstein-Cook, a bird veterinarian who supports the ban. "No matter how the livers are fattened, the animals still suffer from liver disease. If you had a companion animal that you treated this way, you could be arrested for animal cruelty."
Francine Bradley, a poultry specialist at UC Davis who has worked with Gonzalez's farms for 18 years, said the biggest hurdle he may face is that the bill does not set a scientific standard to determine whether an animal feels pain. She denied that the birds' livers were diseased.
In the end, Burton said, Gonzalez may be able to make pate politically palatable before the deadline: "What do I know? If he thinks it's possible, I assume it's possible. He's a nice guy."
Kath Rogers of the Animal Protection and Rescue League lamented Burton's leniency because during the grace period, ducks "will still be tortured."
The feeding practice is prohibited in 14 countries.
Gonzalez's enterprises will clearly take a big hit if the 2012 ban holds. He has spent 20 years, in France, California and his native El Salvador, perfecting farming techniques that originated in ancient Egypt. Gonzalez, his wife, Junny, and their two daughters moved to Northern California in 1986 and opened the Sonoma Foie Gras farm.
The business blossomed, with a bistro in Sonoma where a slice of top-of-the-line artisan foie gras now sells out of the deli case for $80 a pound. The farm near Stockton earns 60% of its revenue from foie gras and 40% from duck meat.
In 2003, the Animal Protection and Rescue League sued Gonzalez for animal cruelty. Several league members confessed that they sneaked onto Gonzalez's farm and "liberated" four ducks.
Intruders also vandalized the bistro just before it was to open, writing threats with paint and pouring concrete into drains, "symbolizing the forcing of high-density feed down the throats of ducks," according to the Animal Liberation Front magazine Bite Back. They did about $50,000 in damage.
The legislative battle drew a much broader range of force-feeding opponents, including celebrities Bea Arthur and Melissa Rivers. It generated more letters, pro and con, to the Senate Business and Professions Committee than any other issue this year.
Shuttling back and forth in his SUV between the restaurant and the duck farm recently, Gonzalez said he thinks his farm has been targeted by activists because "it's very easy to vilify us. We're what they call a 'winnable cause,' because they know that this is an animal agricultural practice that does not have many practitioners."