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Proposed 'right to farm' constitutional amendment likely to end up in court

Cattle head to a barn.
Donna Korando | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2013: Supporters and opponents of Missouri’s proposed “right to farm” constitutional amendment appear to agree on one point:

If the state’s voters approve the measure in 2014, the courts will likely decide what the “right to farm” amendment would actually do.

Supporters and critics close to the legislative debate that resulted in the General Assembly's decision to place the proposal on the ballot hold different opinions about the purpose and potential of the proposed amendment.

It reads:

"Section 35. 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."

What voters will see on the ballot is even more oblique: "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?"

Some backers – including the Missouri Farm Bureau -- believe the ballot proposal will bar, or at least discourage, a replay of the Proposition B campaign in 2010, which sought to impose restrictions on dog breeders.

“That is our profound hope,” said Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst.

Some critics sharply disagree. “I don’t think this accomplishes anything,” said Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation.

Others, on both sides, aren’t sure --- but do agree that the courts will likely play a key role in interpreting the amendment, should it pass.

That wasn’t the aim initially, when agriculture groups in Missouri first proposed the measure to legislators last winter.

“We compromised quite a bit,” said Dan Kleinsorge, executive director of Missouri Farmers Care, the chief coalition backing the proposal. Members of the coalition include the Missouri Farm Bureau, Monsanto, Cargill and other Missouri agricultural groups, as well as some individual farmers.

The original version in the Missouri House would have barred any initiative petitions to regulate any farming practices.

But in the state Senate, some in both parties balked at the idea of barring initiative petitions. “They pretty much took out all of that,” Kleinsorge said. The proposal was amended and then went to a House-Senate conference committee.

Later, during the final weeks of the session, the "right to farm" proposal was rewritten again because of continued Senate objections. It then went to another House-Senate conference.

When the final version was sent to the House for a last vote during the session’s last week, there was confusion among some legislators about the actual wording. Even so, it attracted support from close to two-thirds of the House members. The final Senate vote was also overwhelmingly in favor of putting the proposed constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot.

Because the proposal was passed as a joint resolution, Gov. Jay Nixon’s approval wasn’t needed to place it on the ballot.

‘Right to farm’ movement is national

Missouri’s ballot measure is among several “right to farm” constitutional amendments proposed in a number of Midwestern states, including Indiana and Iowa. An amendment was approved by voters last fall in North Dakota.

The wording in the various states differs widely, but Kleinsorge and Hurst say the aim is the same – to protect agriculture from what they see as undue pressure from the government and animal-rights or environmental groups.

“Prop B is probably a catalyst for a lot of what has happened since then, but this is really forward-looking,” said Kleinsorge. “What we’re trying to do is establish this right to farm on a constitutional level, so that farming and ranching practices can’t be banned in the future.”

Some critics contend that the proposal actually is aimed at protecting Monsanto and other major agribusinesses, some of which have been at odds with farmers over their use of genetically modified seeds and so-called "factory farms" with huge numbers of animals, such as chickens and pigs.

Kleinsorge disagrees. “This is for the small guy,” he said.

Although Monsanto and Cargill are members of the Missouri Farmers Care coalition, “the vast majority of our donors are farmers from Missouri,” Kleinsorge emphasized. All of the members, big or small, are contributing the same $500 a year to the group, he added.

“We see our job as educating the public about why we need this,”Kleinsorge said. At minimum, he believes that passage of the amendment "makes it easier to fight a bad law in court.”

Credit Reid Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

Hurst with the Farm Bureau acknowledges that Proposition B was viewed as “sort of a wake-up call to agriculture.” As an example, he cited the proposition’s provision to limit the number of female dogs that a breeder could own.

The restriction on the number of female dogs, said Hurst, “was totally arbitrary.”

(Because Proposition B was a proposed state law, not a constitutional amendment, its approval by Missouri voters didn’t prevent the General Assembly from toning down many of the restrictions during the 2011 legislative session.)

Hurst said that many farmers and agricultural firms and associations “find ourselves in the same public disfavor’’ as tea party or religious groups. He pointed, for example, to the ongoing debate with some environmental groups about genetically modified food or certain practices in handling livestock.

“As we’re learning, the government doesn’t always treat unpopular groups very fairly,“ Hurst added. “That’s our concern … We think this amendment will give us some protection against some sort of arbitrary initiative petition or legislation.”

Animal rights groups disagree about impact

The Humane Society of the United States was among the backers, financial and otherwise, of Proposition B in 2010. And that continues to be a sore spot among some critics.

U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth – and a farmer – has pressed the Internal Revenue Service for years to investigate the Humane Society because he believes it may have violated its tax-exempt status by donating so much time and money to pass Proposition B.

Luetkemeyer recently announced that he was pleased that the U.S. Treasury inspector general for tax administration “has agreed to review the manner” in which the IRS handled his requests for an investigation.

The Humane Society of the United States (a separate entity from local Humane Society groups) has repeatedly stated that its activities complied with the tax-exempt requirements that do allow it to advocate on issues.

At the moment, the association’s lawyers are looking closely at the “right to farm” proposal before deciding how to proceed.

Even with the changes made by the state Senate, “we still think it is very problematic and our attorneys are still looking at it,” said state director Amanda Good. “We do plan to educate voters to vote against it.”

Good said that backers are wrong to say that her side is out to hurt family farms, which she maintains has never been the case.

Good acknowledged that the association had worked hard to block the proposed constitutional amendment and played a role in the successful Senate effort to change it.

The Humane Society claims some success in encouraging legislators to remove early provisions that animal-rights groups say would have prevented any local health-department regulations on farmers or state oversight to guarantee food safety and animal health.

Baker with the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation noted that some dog breeders already have sued the state Department of Agriculture over the weakened regulations approved by the General Assembly in 2011 to replace those in Proposition B.

Still, Baker said his group doesn’t plan to get heavily involved in any 2014 campaign against the “right to farm” proposal because it believes the final version put on the 2014 ballot is too weak to be threatening to animal-rights efforts.

Calling the proposal a “solution to a nonexistent problem,” Baker added, “The consensus is that this is a stupid amendment, but it won’t do any harm.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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