Commentary: Pushing a ‘Right to Farm’

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Enshrining a right to farm in a state constitution might seem silly. However, given the fierce opposition from anti-industry activists, it may be a necessity. But doing so creates some real risks.

Next month, voters in Missouri will be asked to add an amendment to the Show Me state’s constitution. It’s deceptively straightforward: That Missourians shall have “the right to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices.”

But the so-called “Right to Farm” amendment is anything but simple and straightforward. Supporters insist that it would protect the state’s hugely important farming base, including significant pork and dairy operations. Opponents — and it’s not too difficult to figure out who they might be — claim that approval could lead to wholesale abuse of animals by both producers and breeders.

The controversy began in 2010 when Missouri voters passed a ballot measure enacting strict regulations on dog breeders operating in the state. The campaign was funded in largely by the Humane Society of the United States, which later bragged that the new rules on cage sizes and numbers of breeding dogs per facility put “hundreds of puppy mills out of business.”

The fear that hundreds of farmers might be similarly put out of business via restrictive regulations is ostensibly the rationale for this proposed constitutional amendment, which proponents claim would simply give farmers solid legal standing to challenge regulations on genetically modified crops or animal welfare issues.

“Agriculture all over the United States, not just in Missouri, is under attack from outside groups willing to spend millions to advance their agenda,” Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, told the Kansas City Star. “We need some protections from these attacks.”

Opponents insist the proposed amendment would negate environmental and animal-protection laws now on the books.

“People already have the right to farm in this state. Putting it in the constitution is sort of a silly thing,” Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, told McClatchy News Service.

HSUS officials, for their part, argued that the real aim of the proposal is to protect factory farms and corporations such as Monsanto, as well as potentially stifle litigation targeting polluters.

A disturbing parallel

This aggressive approach by ag groups to protect farmers’ and producers’ rights, though justified, is worrisome. That’s because agriculture is standing at a crossroads similar to what the nation’s major unions faced in the 1960s.

Back then, a perfect storm of techno-cultural developments was re-making the industrial landscape at the very point in time that union leadership decided to dig in its heels during collective bargaining on so-called “master contracts” that covered entire industries. Even as automated technologies and computerized controls began allowing manufacturers to shed millions of blue-collar jobs, the hardline stance on job security led to abuses such as featherbedding of obsolete jobs and rigid seniority systems that robbed employers of the flexibility they needed to stay competitive.

All that, coupled with a civil rights movement that cast a damaging light on trade unions’ shabby record on minority hiring, stoked widespread public backlash and paved the way for many corporations to go all in on outsourcing and offshoring as ways to shed their union contracts.

But that revolution might never have happened — or at least it would have taken many more years to get underway — had the public remained staunchly in favor of unions. In the end, however, unions were their own worst enemies, and an ill-advised battle to maintain a status quo that was no longer sustainable cost them dearly.

Likewise, producers and farmers are now confronted with a rapidly changing social landscape, with a citizenry unappreciative of the challenges of food production and increasingly reluctant to continue to support the agricultural support systems that have contributed to the abundance and affordability of our modern food supply.

People no longer grow up on a farm. They don’t know anybody who’s a farmer. An understanding of the skill required to nurture crops, tend to the soil or manage pasture and rangeland is no longer commonplace. Like the firsthand experience of working in a steel mill or a packing plant, the public’s connection to raising animals or growing crops has virtually disappeared.

And when public empathy for the struggles that accompanying food production begins to wane, policymakers no longer feel bound to continue the historic supports that in a previous generation were taken for granted, and that includes much more than just federal subsidies. When agriculture slides down the list of national priorities, research funding is affected, irrigation projects get curtailed and land-use decisions increasingly favor development over farming.

In analyzing what happened to unions, it’s not fair to say they did it to themselves, because their decline was exacerbated greatly by the aforementioned convergence of societal factors beyond their control. But certainly their greed, arrogance and short-sightedness became co-conspirators in furthering their downfall.

Likewise, automation and technology have so reduced participation in agriculture that it’s a wonder that the concept of catering to “farm states” still exists as a political dynamic. That’s not the fault of farmers or producers.

But those who still recognize the importance of a strong, vital food-production sector had best tread carefully in their public positioning.

These days, to be a successful in agriculture, you’ve got to understand not only how to cultivate the soil, but how to cultivate public opinion, as well.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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jeff wilson    
Potomac, Montana  |  July, 16, 2014 at 11:05 PM

How interesting, those that argue about the Right to Farm. How many of these peoples roots are from Ireland. The true Blessing is the fact is they do not have to worry, YET, about the NEED to Farm. God has blessed the 100% of America that the 1% feeds.

Randy Janssen    
Texas  |  July, 17, 2014 at 06:17 AM

The HSUS and other urban based, vegan biased fanatical organization campaigns against poultry, pig and cattle producers thrive on the separation of urban dwellers from food production. A lot of legitimate methods of animal husbandry, like calf and piglet castration would make your typical urbanite puke. If these people had to slit the throat of a hog to get meat to survive the winter, they would be less concerned with animal rights. Of course that is going to happen when they have to pay $10.00 a doz., for free range chicken eggs and $20.00 a lb. for bacon, if the animal rights fanatics get their way.

iowa  |  July, 17, 2014 at 11:06 AM

No Randy if the animal rights people get their way we will only eat veggies. They will not stop until they get what they want. No animal husbandry, no hunting, no meat consumption whatsoever only meat substitute. BTW if vegans really believe that "meat is murder" why do they trumpet veggie burgers? Isn't that like faux murder? It is all about control and these people have decided that they will make decisions as to what YOU can and cannot have.

kansas  |  July, 23, 2014 at 10:53 PM

Mr. Murphy, as usual, makes a good point but misses some significant defects in his comparison to unions and consumers. Unions destroyed themselves by being enemies of efficiency and quality abundance, when there were Alternatives, i.e. cheap foreign labor and lots of it to produce fully equivalent products desired by consumers. I'm not sure how Mr. Murphy thinks Americans will off-shore safe, abundant high-quality foods that meet their "expectations"? Will they come from China? Korea? India? Southeast Asia? …as do the they cars, appliances and consumer goods that US union labor once produced? Also, as to consumers' "expectations", it's been proven that despite what they say, they purchase foods they can afford over those marketed as being "sustainable" or "natural" or "cruelty free". It is important that Modern agriculture present itself well, but that does not involve kowtowing or slick public relations programs prepared by smarmy madman "suits". We need to demand respect on our own terms, in a principled fashion. And also make it clear to consumers exactly where they'll be in terms of quality & quantity without us - as we are.

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