From the October issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

Is there a right to farm?After a recent vote (and a recount), Missouri has decided to make an addition to its state constitution: a right to farm amendment. The closeness of the vote necessitated the recount. Out of almost a million votes cast, the difference between supporters and opponents was just 2,375 votes.

As a result, this language will be entered into the constitution: “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 farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by article VI of the Constitution of Missouri.”

Already, Missouri (and every other state) has a right to farm law in place. These laws are intended to discourage neighbors from suing farmers who are performing widely accepted agriculture practices, and they also may limit the possibility of changing the local regulations that apply to farming. To reinforce and supplement those state laws, some counties and municipalities are passing their own right to farm bills.

Missouri is just the second state to take the further step of inserting farming rights in its constitution. (North Dakota was first, passing an amendment two years ago.) Supporters of the amendment included the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and the Missouri Republican Party. They saw the amendment as a way to provide more protection from environmentalists, animal-rights advocates and any other outside forces that might be interested in regulating agriculture. Some cited concern over measures passed in other states, such as the California law requiring farmers to provide larger crates for hens. Many also pointed to Missouri’s own anti-puppy-mill law, approved by voters and later overhauled — some say undone — by the state legislature.

In the opposing corner were those who feared that corporate farms could use the amendment to sidestep regulations. Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, the Missouri Farmers Union and some small farmers opposed the amendment, as did the editorial board of the Kansas City Star, which called it “a concerted effort to shield factory farms and concentrated agricultural feeding operations from regulations to protect livestock, consumers and the environment.”

Some farmers also expressed concern that existing laws limiting foreign companies to ownership of 1 percent of Missouri land could be challenged under the amendment. Others worried the amendment creates a special status for ranchers and farmers that could be problematic in itself. As one cattle and soybean producer told the New York Times, “One thing’s for sure — it’s going to put ag culture above everybody else. We’re going to be a different class of people. You won’t be able to complain about anything that we do. That should never be the case.”

The question of what the amendment actually means in practical terms remains. While federal laws pertaining to agriculture will be unaffected, the implications for state and local laws are unknown. Legal battles may result, meaning the definition of the right to farm could be decided in the courtroom.