Right to farm draws criticism and compliment

Mar 14, 2013

The Missouri state House of Representatives at the end of last month passed a combined version of two earlier “right to farm” resolutions. This has made waves in recent weeks, drawing both praise and complaint.

House Joint Resolutions 7 and 11 (HJR 7&11)—a wonderfully concise piece of legislation—proposes to change the state’s constitution to guarantee and safeguard the ability of farmers and ranchers to use modern practices. The resolution has moved on to the Missouri state Senate and if passed, will appear on the November 2014 ballot for Missourians to decide.

In its entirety, the resolution would add the following section into its constitution’s Section A, Article I:

“Section 35. That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri’s economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state. No state law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology and modern and traditional livestock production and ranching practices, unless enacted by the General Assembly.”

The resolution passed the House with a vote of 110 to 41.

The move has been applauded by Missouri’s ranching community. Mike Deering, new president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and recent communications director for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, welcomed the move.

“The fact is that this amendment shouldn’t be necessary, but thanks to animal rights extremists groups destined to stifle Missouri’s agricultural sector, it is not only necessary, it’s absolutely essential,” he said in the group’s official response.

“This is a proactive step to protect the providers of food and fiber from outside groups wanting to stifle Missouri’s farm and ranch families. If activists get their way and stymie food production in this country, consumers already struggling in this economy will be unnecessarily forced to pay more at the grocery store.”

Rep. Jason Smith, R-District 120, who sponsored HJR 7, said a constitutional amendment is essential to his state’s $11 billion agricultural economy.

“Our amendment would give farm families the peace of mind that their way of life will not be destroyed by subversive animal rights groups. That is why it is important that we follow the lead of North Dakota, which saw an overwhelming number of voters approve a ‘Right to Farm’ constitutional amendment last year. Like Missouri, North Dakota saw an invasion of out-of-state interest groups that wanted to attack the state’s most valuable industry.”

Smith’s and Deering’s not-so-veiled references to “activists” and “out-of-state interest groups” generally refer to the similarly not-soveiled efforts of the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) to get various farm animal-related initiatives on state ballots. Some of these initiatives, such as California’s 2008 Prop 2, passed, classifying various industry standards in housing for pregnant sows, laying hens, and veal calves “inhumane” and illegal. Other efforts in different states—such as the aforementioned North Dakota and the 2012 election’s Measure 5—have been less effective.

Missouri isn’t the only state that’s gotten wise to the efforts of HSUS and others. Other states have similar efforts under way. In early February, Indiana’s state Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 7 with a vote of 38 to 10. Much as the Missouri resolution, the Indiana resolution would amend the state’s constitution to ensure the rights of citizens to “hunt, fish, harvest game, or engage in the agricultural or commercial production of meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products.”

The favored phrase for these propositions among their supporters is “right to farm” —also “right to hunt” proposals which often include farming interests— but this recently popular phrase has some potentially confusing crossover with another class of farmingrelated laws. Earlier usage of the phrase referred to statutes which protect farmers and ranchers from nuisance lawsuits.

Generally speaking, these laws have been intended to prevent individuals or groups, usually those who have moved into rural areas, from suing their farming neighbors over issues like noise, flies, smell and other possibly bothersome elements of agricultural life. Every one of the 50 states has enacted this class of “right to farm” laws.

Not everyone is pleased about the new brand of “right to farm” laws. The most tepid of opposition simply questions the necessity for such laws, while others make claims that the laws—sometimes derisively called “ag gag laws” when they include provisions against or regarding undercover videotaping—will subvert animal welfare in their state.

Center for Wildlife Ethics President Laura M. Nirenberg said Indiana’s proposed constitutional amendment is “monopolizing legislators’ time and taxpayer resources for the sole purpose of legislating minority interests.” Of the hunting-focused provision of the proposed law, which would make hunting the “preferred means of wildlife management” by constitutional decree, she described it as having the potential to undermine the fundamental concept of democracy.

Similarly, Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation (MAAL), said the proposed Missouri constitutional amendment would be a very bad thing for the state. He warned that the proposed amendment would “allow Missouri to become the center of farm animal abuse” by equating “factory farms”—which his group defines as “large corporate farms”—to animal abuse. MAAL’s information on the resolution further claims commercial dog breeders—indiscriminately called “puppy mills” and with implication that they inherently involve animal abuse—would be included despite no mention of dogs in the proposal, nor the regular inclusion of dogs as livestock.

Despite the usual sides being drawn on these legislative efforts, any definitive action on them and others that are likely to develop is a long way away. Assuming the resolutions get passed in their respective state congresses and make it to the ballots, it wouldn’t be until the end of 2014 that voters would get a chance to voice their opinion. However, Deering urged everyone involved in agriculture in Missouri, including consumers, to contact their state senator and encourage a vote in favor of the Missouri resolution. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor