By Ruth Ravve, ,
Published December 20, 2015
Americans have a right to bear arms. They have a right to free speech. But a right to farm?
Missouri voters and interest groups are locked in a battle over that very question, as some farmers say they need to secure that right in response to animal rights advocates and others that want to restrict the way their profession is done.
Missouri voters in August approved a measure that would enshrine the right to farm in the state constitution. However, it passed by such a narrow margin, a recount is now underway.
Missouri's secretary of state is expected to announce the results of the recount on Monday, and farmers across the country will be watching closely to determine whether similar measures should be passed in their states.
The question has meanwhile created a major divide that has split urban and rural residents, and in some cases pitted farmer against farmer.
On one side are commodity groups like the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Cattlemen's Association and the Poultry Federation. On the other are animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States as well as the Missouri Farmers Union and some small farmers.
The idea behind Missouri's amendment is to add another layer of protection against any future attempts to pass laws regulating anything from the use of genetically modified crops to how livestock are raised.
A host of new regulations could put them out of business, supporters say.
"What I’m concerned about is having added regulations put on us from people who sit behind a desk in maybe Washington, D.C., or Jefferson City." said Chris Chinn, whose family has been farming for generations. "I want my veterinarian and my animal nutritionist to be the ones that help me decide how to care for my animals."
Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst agreed.
"We've seen animal care amendments across the nation,” he said. “Just recently we've seen the GMO initiatives in both Oregon and Hawaii that have actually curtailed farmer seed choices. We're hoping to forestall any of that in Missouri.”
Hurst also warns that consumers will face the consequences of too much regulation with higher food prices. He said the amendment would help ensure affordable and abundant food and consumer choices.
There are laws in all 50 states that protect farmers, but only North Dakota and Missouri have made the right to farm an amendment to state constitutions.
Opponents, though, say the Missouri measure goes too far.
Wes Shoemyer, president of Missouri Food for America, said family farmers in his state already have the right to farm. The amendment, he said, would actually hurt the small farmers by empowering large corporate operations to get around laws that diminish them by citing their constitutional "right to farm."
"I just think this thing is so dangerous and opens the door up. It’s just like putting a mat out saying 'we're ready for a corporate takeover now in Missouri,'" he said.
Shoemyer also said he worries about foreign-owned companies taking over. "We should be in control of our own food in America," he said.
Hurst noted that the state already has prohibitions against corporate and foreign ownership of farmland.
Shoemyer, though, said they are only statutes and a “state constitutional amendment would trump that."
No matter the outcome of the recount, both sides are bracing for future court battles, where judges and juries would determine what the "right to farm" actually means.
Shoemyer, though, said agriculture policy “should not be determined by a court system."
"The courts do not have the knowledge of all the intricate working parts of agriculture to do the policy work they're going to be asked to do, because anything that's in statutes today can be challenged in a court of law if a farmer possesses a constitutional right,” he said.
Agriculture is the leading industry in Missouri. According to state economists, Missouri ranks second in the nation in the number of farms, with 107,825.
Nearly 300,000 people work on those farms and in the agribusiness industry.