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Would 'Right To Farm' Ballot Question Protect Family Farms Or Ag Corporations?

Livestock in Missouri.
File | Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri legislature is considering making the MDC financially responsible for any damage caused by wild elk, and allowing ranchers and other landowners to kill any elk that damages their property.

Do Missouri’s farmers and ranchers need a constitutional amendment to continue their way of life, or does current law offer enough protection? That’s the debate surrounding one of the five ballot measures Missouri voters will decide next month. Supporters and opponents are campaigning and spending money on efforts to both pass and kill the proposal that could limit regulations on farming and ranching.

Origins and journey of 'Right to Farm'

In November 2010, Missouri voters narrowly approved a statute called the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act, known at the time as “Proposition B,” with the bulk of the “yes” votes coming from the St. Louis and Kansas City areas and most of the “no” votes from rural Missouri. Many dog breeders in Missouri are primarily farmers who took breeding up as a side business, or who transitioned to doing it full-time because it proved more lucrative.

Five months later, during the 2011 legislative session, Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon agreed on a bill that dropped the phrase "puppy mills" and undid most of the new rules in the voter-approved law, including a 50-dog limit per breeder.

That led to a broader push by GOP leaders and various agriculture interests to install the right to farm and ranch within the Missouri Constitution.  They voiced numerous concerns, one being that following the example of the 50 dog-per-breeder rule, animal rights and environmental groups might go to court to try and limit the number of farm animals a person could own. Several variations of the proposal were floated in the Missouri House and Senate until one was finally passed by both chambers last year  – House Joint Resolutions 11 and 7, now known as Constitutional Amendment 1. Veterinarian Dr. Alan Wessler is vice president of Missouri Farmers Care, an alliance of several agricultural interests that’s backing the Right-to-Farm amendment. He says it’s needed to combat activist groups with “deep pockets and zeal,” but who don’t understand animal agriculture or crop production.

“A lot of our producers, whether they’re Farm Bureau or Cattlemen, Pork producers (or) Corn, are such size that they can’t handle lawsuits that take a lot of money,” Wessler said. “(The) farming rights amendment will help prevent that.”

Constitutional Amendment 1 states in part that the right to farm and ranch cannot be infringed upon and shall be “forever guaranteed.” It was originally sponsored in the Missouri House by state Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho.

“It gives Missouri farm families the constitutional guarantee that they’ll be able to continue what they’ve always done all their lives,” Reiboldt said, “and that is to humanely raise their livestock, (raise crops), and to farm without the interference of out-of-state groups who might come in and try to, in some way, disrupt our agricultural farming practices.”

Opposition to 'Right to Farm'

Opponents of Constitutional Amendment 1 strongly disagree. At a rally last month at the state capitol, approximately 50 people argued that the “right to farm” amendment is a smokescreen designed to benefit large corporations that engage in large-scale farming and animal-producing operations. Wes Shoemyer is a former Democratic state senator who’s treasurer for the main opposition group, Missouri’s Food for America. He says the right-to-farm amendment would primarily benefit one corporation – Smithfield, a pork producer formerly based in Virginia that was purchased last year by Hong Kong-based Shuanghui International Holdings Limited, now known as W.H. Group Limited.

Corn stalks Kaskaskia Island
Credit File photo | Rachel Heidenry

“It’s very basic,” Shoemyer said. “Do we want family farmers and our consumers in control of our food source, or do we want to rely on foreign corporations to be controlling our food supply, (one in particular) who answer to a communist government, or do we want family farmers? You’re gonna vote ‘no’ if you want family farmers.”

Shoemyer says Smithfield’s parent company already owns 27 percent of the pork produced in the United States, and that it has plans to build more concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs in Missouri.

Representatives for Smithfield and its parent company have so far not responded to requests for a comment.

In addition, former Missouri Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, who’s with the Humane Society of the United States, contends that the proposal would benefit St. Louis-based Monsanto and make it harder for small family farms to avoid using genetically modified organisms. Charla Lord, a spokesperson for Monsanto, says, though, that they are neutral on the proposed amendment and are not donating any money to its supporters.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Amparan of the Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club, Osage Group, says the ballot measure could give agribusinesses the right to challenge state and local pollution laws in court.

“Missouri has had clean water laws for over 40 years, and other anti-pollution laws as well, and farming in Missouri has continued to grow and prosper,” Amparan told the amendment’s opponents at last month’s rally. “Let’s not let agribusiness or puppy mill owners control our state … we want the freedom for our voters to decide what is right for the state of Missouri and when it comes to the safety of our food, our water, our air, and our soil.”

But Reiboldt disagrees. He says the proposed amendment is not about protecting corporate farms, CAFOs, genetically engineered crops or losing local control.

“It’s similar to the right to bear arms, and that’s what this amendment does,” Reiboldt said. “Constitutionally it gives us that right to continue our farming operations without being disrupted from the outside; and then if, it’s ever challenged in the courts, we have that constitutional guarantee that will work in our favor, and we believe that that is huge.”

Erin Morrow Hawley, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, teaches courses in both agricultural and environmental law. She says it would be up to the courts to determine the scope of the amendment if it’s passed, but she also doesn’t think passage would lead to a “floodgate” of lawsuits.

“Some of the local zoning laws might be subject to challenge under the constitutional amendment, but I don’t see a ‘floodgates’ argument, in that you would have courts construing those,” Hawley said. “In certain counties, depending on how they’re set up in the state Constitution, you may get some challenges, but again, anything based on federal regulation would stand.”

Back in May, Gov. Nixon placed the Right-to-Farm amendment on the August primary ballot, giving supporters and opponents only 10 ½ weeks to sway voters to their respective sides. Campaign commercials have yet to begin, but both sides have been raising money. The Missouri Farm Bureau’s Fund to Protect Farming & Ranching had raised $118,765.03 as of June 30. The opposition, Missouri’s Food for America, has yet to file a full disclosure report for the current year, but it did receive a $25,000 contribution in late May.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.