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Right to Farm Pits Farmer against Farmer

Kris Husted/Harvest Public Media

The agriculture industry is a cornerstone of the Midwest economy. In some states, it may even become a right.

In Missouri, the so-called “right to farm” is on the ballot in the form of an amendment to the state Constitution. And the controversial provision could be a model for Constitutional additions on other ag-heavy states.

Though the “right to farm” provision is focused on agriculture, it has pitted farmer against farmer with some worried that the results could change the face of farming in the Midwest.

Accountability concerns

Jeff Jones and his daughters drive a feed cart on a recent day down the hill from their house to a shady grove to feed their foraging cattle.

About a dozen cows saunter out to greet the buckets of grain. But Jones, a fourth-generation farmer, is worried. A new industrial hog farm is trying to move in less than half a mile away. The 20-acre lot in rural Callaway County, Mo., would pack in more than 10,000 hogs. Jones says he’s concerned how it will affect the health of his livestock and family.

“Much of the fertilizer will be spread on the land which will be uphill from us,” he said. “So when large rains [come], there’s going to be concerns about that coming down here and being in the water and the creek and the ditches.”

It’s a common story: large-scale farming and neighbors don’t always mix. But Jones is worried that he won’t be able to hold the hog operation accountable for problems if Missouri voters approve Amendment 1 on the ballot Aug. 5.  As proposed, it says in part, “The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in the state.” Jones and others worry, however, that it could give more power and influence to large farms and wealthy corporations at the expense of smaller operations.

Fending off attacks

The Missouri measure essentially attempts to protect farmers and ranchers from any new laws that would change or outlaw practices they currently use.

“(These) practices that are proven, that are safe, that are good for consumers, good for farmers and good for the environment,” said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, which has spent heavily on advertising supporting the amendment.

If the provision was adopted, some say it will be harder to bring public pressure to farms that harm the environment or to pass legislation restricting how farmers operate.

Hurst says he wants to stay one step ahead of the groups that use regulation to change the way farmers do business. Some Midwest farmers say recently they feel under attack from animal welfare groups and environmental organizations. They’re worried about their livelihood.

“So this amendment is a way for us to push back a little bit,” Hurst said.

Unclear language

The amendment has become a hot button issue. On one side: commodity groups, like the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and the Poultry Federation. On the other: animal rights groups, like the Humane Society of the United States and some small farmers.

One of the issues is vague language. University of Missouri law professor Erin Morrow Hawley says if the amendment passes, it will likely lead to interpretation issues down the road.

“It talks about ‘farming and ranching practices,’” Hawley said. “So that’s a rather general term and will be left up to the courts to decide what that encompasses.”

If the amendment passes, farms would still have to abide by existing laws and environmental regulations. But, critics say a “right to farm” provision would make Missouri friendlier to large farm companies with deep pockets.

Joe Maxwell, former lieutenant governor of Missouri and head of a group opposing the amendment, says the law could result in more power for big farmers and companies, and allow them to fund changes in local laws.

“Those out here in the country, we’re just going to get screwed if this passes,” Maxwell said. “If this passes, those safeguards will be under attack by those who want to build large CAFOs in rural Missouri.”

Court future

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst maintains that the amendment is meant to protect all of the state’s farmers. And the opposition may be much ado about nothing.

Two years ago, North Dakota passed a similar right to farm amendment. North Dakota State University law professor David Saxowsky says he hasn’t seen any resulting court cases.

“Maybe sometime in the next decades there will be some technology that even producers will say ‘Hey wait, we really aren't sure if we want that within our industry.’ And at that point, this language will be tested,” Saxowsky said.

Farmer Jeff Jones says he’s anxiously looking to the future, too.

“By leveling the playing field to where these great corporate farms are going to gain more power, it is going to put even more pressure on the traditional family farms,” he said.

Ultimately, in states where agriculture is a large chunk of the economy, voters will look at what needs protection.

More: States ponder the ‘right to farm’