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What Does The ‘Right To Farm’ Mean In Missouri?

Kristofor Husted
Harvest Public Media

U.S. Congress members are throwing their support behind a proposed “right to farm” amendment in Missouri’s constitution. But critics are pointing to the measure’s ambiguous language as problematic.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican from the central part of the state, is one of several U.S. representatives pushing for Missouri voters to approve the amendment in a state-wide primary election Aug. 5.

The proposed amendment says, in part, “The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in the state.” The measure basically attempts to protect farmers and ranchers from any state laws that would change or outlaw practices they currently use.

Hartzler, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, says this amendment is essential to prevent what she calls the overregulation of the industry that she’s seen in other states.

 “Outside entities with a lot of money have come in and regulate and impose on the farmers, ranchers and people of that state their views of how livestock should be raised and how crops should be grown,” she said.

U.S. Reps. Blaine LuetkemeyerJason Smith and Billy Long – all Missouri Republicans -- have echoed Hartzler’s comments. They’ve also said that if it doesn’t pass, consumers could eventually see price increases at the grocery store, though it’s not clear food prices would rise if the state fails to put a “right to farm” on the books.

Critics of the amendment say the vague language could lead to self-interested interpretations. Some worry adding this provision to the state Constitution could make it more difficult to bring legal or legislative challenges to operations that pollute the environment or raise animals improperly.

The Humane Society of the United States has come out strongly against the amendment and says the provision favors conventional agriculture and food companies, such as Monsanto and Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, which could increase the amount of concentrated animal feeding operations and squeeze out non-GMO farms.

Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri political science professor, says the “right to farm” language that was approved by state legislators and is on the ballot could lead to various legal interpretations down the road.

“It’s very vague as to what a local government may or may not be able to do, whether we will have land-use conflicts or local governments trying to limit the ability of farmers or ranchers engaged in certain activities,” he said.

Groups opposed to the amendment say it could pit farmer against farmer and rancher against rancher, as well. Imagine a farm growing organic crops is contaminated with genetically modified plants from the farm next door, would there be any recourse? Or could the farm using GMO seeds just point to the amendment?

Beyond that, if the amendment passes by gaining approval from a majority of Missouri voters the state will have to define exactly who is a farmer and who is a rancher.

“That would be one thing they’d have to thrash out pretty early on,” Squire said. “Is it anybody who engages in raising any animal or any sort of plant a farmer? Is it a percentage of what income you may generate? It’s just very vague and ambiguous.”

And don’t count on the courts to pick up the slack in defining these terms or hearing cases related to the proposed right to farm language, Squire says.

“It’s not clear if anybody will want to seize on this in the future should it pass and try to use it to overturn a decision that may have been reached in the legislature or local governments or maybe even by the voters,” he said. 

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst, who supports the amendment, said he expects the courts to interpret the language and listen to cases concerning the amendment – just like any other piece of legislation.

North Dakota passed a similar amendment last year, albeit with a bit stronger language. Similar efforts are on the horizon in at least two other states, including Iowa.

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