I was happy to see the good folks of Missouri pass an amendment protecting farming, one of our most basic and important pursuits. I wasn't happy that some saw it as a necessary amendment. The biggest surprise was it passed by the slimmest of margins. It was Jenny Craig thin. New York runway model thin. Unofficial returns showed it received just 50.13% of the vote.
The official ballot language reads: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed?"
The language reads innocently enough. Who could possibly want to limit farming in Missouri? It would be like limiting the right to breath or eat a hot dog at a Cardinals baseball game. Farming is apple pie and the flag. For most people in agriculture, it is absolutely the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. But even within that small family, there was dissent.
In a state that prides itself on being one of the centers of American agriculture, the right to farm carried the day by just .13%. That thinnest of margins was the painful result of a battle between rural and urban voters which is to be expected. The two groups have little in common and almost no understanding of each other. There was another even more painful battle, an internecine was between 'big' farmers and 'little' farmers. It was a family spat and those are often the most damaging.
Richard Oswald, president of the Missouri Farmers Union, writing against the bill in an opinion piece for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this year, said "Here in Missouri, where agriculture has always been mainstay, we are no strangers to big food. Traditional livestock growing regions in Missouri are two sides of the same coin as family farm cattle herds graze within feet of massive corporate poultry and hog confinements."
Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farming Bureau and a proponent of the bill, talked with KBIA public radio shortly after the vote was announced. He said “This was necessary because of the movements that we have seen all across the country, and here in Missouri, to try to change agriculture in a way that would have harmed consumers. Just in the past few months we’ve seen ballot initiatives passed in California, Oregon and Hawaii that have denied farmers safe and efficient technology. That’s why what we did here this evening is so very important.”
Mike Deering, Executive Vice President, Missouri Cattlemen's Association, attempting to clarify the several bones of contention between the two farm groups, wrote "So why the confusion? Vice President of Outreach and Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) Joe Maxwell and his sidekicks packed a lot of misleading information, topped with outright lies into a “confusion grenade” and threw it out in the middle of a crowd and watched as innocent Missourians are caught up in a web of intentional head scratching."
Chris Houston, writing in Missouri's Linn Country Reader, raised the old-time, evil outsider influence argument. "Former Missouri Senator Wes Shoemyer and current Scotland County Commissioner Chipper Harris have warned. . .if the promoters of the Right To Farm amendment are worried about outsiders interfering with Missouri’s family farmers, they should reserve their concern for China.
In a letter dated June 22, Shoemyer and Harris accurately observe that Smithfield Foods has been purchased by the Chinese company Shuanghui International Holdings that just acquired 50,000 acres in northern Missouri. They further contend that if the Right To Farm Amendment is passed by voters during the August primary, Smithfield Foods will be free to purchase more land in our state than Missouri Legislature previously allowed."
Agriculture witnessed its first battle with the always despised HSUS and foreign interests on one side and regular farmers manning the ramparts of truth, justice and the American way on the other. The second battle was small farmers vs big farmers, to be defined as the traditional mom and pop farm with its limited resources fighting to stay alive in the face of corporate farming, often a larger and better financed family-owned farm. Of course, that latter group also includes outfits like Smithfield that have used their considerable size and wealth to create highly efficient, mechanized businesses by piecing together several smaller farms to create something large that Grandpa never foresaw.
Holding back progress has never been in agricultures best interest. I'm sure there was a lot of concern when an older generation first witnessed a decline in the use of the always reliable draft animals as a younger generation of farmers began trading them for tractors.
We didn't demand the automobile industry stop innovating in 1965. No one told IBM to hold the line on new product development in 1960. The public didn't tell Bill Gates to leave the software business 'as is' in 1975. So why do we have to consider legally protecting the necessary technological advances of the most important human pursuit in 2014?
Farming, after all, is the ultimate expression of the free market. It must move forward, using every new tool to its best advantage. Improvements in equipment, seed stock, and better access to capital and markets have saved agriculture's 'bacon' time and again. All a doubter needs do is turn the clock back to the 1930's - very small farms, an unmanageable drought, unproductive-by-today's-standards seed stock, back-breaking labor done almost entirely by hand.
Yeah, the good old days weren't really all that good unless viewed through Grannie's rose-colored glasses. The "right to farm" has to be the right to run it as a profitable business and to make decisions based on what works best for each farmer.