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Missouri's 'Right-to-Farm' Vote Isn't as Simple as It Sounds

Opponents say a ballot question asking Missouri voters Tuesday whether they support the right to farm is a misleading attempt to exempt agribusiness from future regulations.

An attendee decorates signs at the Missouri’s Food for America sign-making event to protest Amendment 1.
An attendee decorates signs at the Missouri’s Food for America sign-making event to protest Amendment 1.
Voters in Missouri face a seemingly simple question in Tuesday’s primary with potentially far-reaching implications: Do they support the right to farm?

Amendment 1 asks if the state constitution should be changed to “ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed.” To supporters, the measure provides greater security from overzealous environmentalists, animal rights advocates and foodies who want greater regulation of agriculture. That’s one of the things opponents most fear -- a barrier to future regulations that respond to new science about food safety or the spread of disease. 

“When the public decides it really wants to do something, this amendment would be an obstacle,” said John Ikerd, a professor emeritus of agriculture at the University of Missouri. 

Every state has some form of a “right-to-farm” law. These laws typically protect certain farmers and ranchers from nuisance lawsuits, which could come in the form of complaints about noise or odor. In Missouri’s case, farmers or ranchers who have been in operation for more than a year have protections from such complaints and the ability to “reasonably” expand without facing lawsuits. But supporters of Amendment 1 argue that’s not enough. 

They point to a 2010 ballot measure that sought to rein in so-called “puppy mills,” in part by placing a 50-dog cap on breeders. Some ranchers actually work in the breeding business, and others worried that the law’s aims could one day extend to people who raise livestock. 

That law was largely overturned later by the legislature, but advocates for Amendment 1 point to other issues as well, from bans on using genetically modified seeds in parts of Oregon to attempts to create buffers around hog farms to protect conservation areas in Missouri.  

“All these things were a wakeup call to our industry,” said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, the amendment’s chief backer.  “We’re more than willing to talk to consumers about why we do the things we do, but let’s enshrine some more protections in law.” 

The Farm Bureau is part of a coalition that has spent more than $600,000 since the beginning of July to sway undecided voters. But their opponents, a collection of environmental groups, smaller farm groups and animal rights activists, have spent more than $400,000 over the same period. 

Those opponents argue the amendment effort is more about protecting industrial farms from lawsuits challenging controversial practices than defending the rights of smaller farmers. While there’s no overt presence of major agricultural businesses, opponents point to issues with the language of the bill the legislature passed to argue multi-nationals such as the Chinese company Shaunghui International Holdings could use it to overturn local ordinances or expand its presence. The company's attempts to enter the Missouri market are well-documented. Unlike the ballot measure, the legislative language that would ratify the amendment refers to “farmers and ranchers,” not “citizens.” 

Laws limiting foreign companies to ownership of one percent of Missouri land could be contested under that language, said Wes Shoemeyer, a former Democratic state senator who’s leading the opposition campaign. 

Shoemyer and other opponents argue “right-to-farm” laws got their start more than a decade ago among outside corporate interests through groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is reviled by liberals because of its close connection with the business world and financial support from billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch. But the only state to enshrine a “right-to-farm” law in its constitution is North Dakota, which did so in 2012. The amendment there passed by an overwhelming 67 percent. What little polling exists of Missouri's Amendment 1 is now months old, but it shows similar levels of support. 

Indiana’s legislature tried to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in recent years but settled for a stronger statute when it couldn’t get enough votes, Ikerd said. Other states, including Utah and Iowa, have pushed so-called “ag-gag” bills, which criminalize the work of undercover journalists taking photographs or shooting video of large livestock operations, which have been linked to the spread of more resistant bacteria strains because they use antibiotics in animal feed. 

Opponents say the movement to defend farmers and ranchers has grown as people have become more concerned about those issues and the consumption of genetically modified organisms. A constitutional amendment makes any future regulation harder to pass, they say. 

But Hurst’s group has challenged that assessment, noting that constitutional rights aren’t absolute, so compelling reasons for regulating agriculture will pass court scrutiny. It's also true that federal environmental and other regulations would remain intact. Erin Morrow Hawley, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law who teaches courses on agriculture, said courts will inevitably have to determine the scope of the vaguely worded amendment, but she doesn’t think it will prompt a “floodgate” of lawsuits. 

“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,” she told PBS.

Shoemyer acknowledged the right wouldn’t escape all scrutiny, but he argued it still leaves the legislature and democratically elected bodies on the sidelines as courts decide the future of agriculture. Every major newspaper in the state came out against the amendment. 

“No single industry or occupation deserves constitutional immunity,” wrote the Kansas City Star’s editorial board. “It’s the legislature’s job to determine the delicate balance among the interests of farmers, consumers and communities. In putting Amendment 1 on the ballot, lawmakers sought to shirk that responsibility.” 

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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