Should there be a constitutional ‘right-to-farm’? Missouri voters will decide in August

NEOSHO, Mo. — Since the 1940s, the family of state Rep. Bill Reiboldt has owned and operated a farm on the outskirts of Neosho.

Before he sold his milk cows, Reiboldt had eight people working on the farm. These days, it is just he and his son. Wednesday — with mild morning temperatures following the previous day’s rain — was the kind of day farmers like Reiboldt look forward to. “On a day like today, you can hear the corn growing,” he said while standing on his 500-acre farm.

But the calm and quiet of his cornfield was quickly interrupted by the ring of his iPhone.

Reiboldt, a Republican who chairs the Missouri House Agriculture Policy Committee, is helping lead the public campaign in favor of a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution declaring “the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices.” The ballot question asks, “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranging practices shall not be infringed?”

The amendment has received near unanimous support from agricultural and commodity groups, including the Missouri Dairy Association, the Missouri Corn Growers Association, the Missouri Pork Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau. Reiboldt, who now grows alfalfa and corn, and beef cattle, said the amendment would be good for farmers and ranchers of all sizes.

“‘Right to farm’ promotes agriculture,” he said.

Reiboldt said efforts by “radical, out-of-state groups” (referring to groups supporting animal rights and environmental causes) are concerning to the state’s agriculture community. “This is about protection into the future,” he said.

He pointed to actions in other states that some farmers and agriculture groups see as problematic. In California, for example, voters have backed legislation requiring extra space for egg-producing hens. States including Ohio have implemented regulations aiming to lessen pig odors. Even in Missouri, voters approved a measure in 2010 to strengthen regulations on pet breeding operations.

NEOSHO, Mo. — ‘No guidance’

Erin Hawley, who teaches agricultural law at the University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia, said the amendment would not automatically change anything, but it would provide an additional protection for farmers that does not currently exist.

“It gives them a legal ground on which to challenge a future regulation,” she said.

Take as an example the dog breeder regulations voters approved in 2010, known as Proposition B. Aside from the changes made by the Legislature after the vote, those regulations are likely going to stay in place. But Hawley said that if someone — say a local dog breeding corporation — brought a challenge to a future voter-approved proposition, Amendment No. 1 would be a “powerful weapon against a statute like Proposition B.”

“A lot will be left to the courts,” she said. “The amendment provides no guidance,” particularly as to the definition of who qualifies as a farmer and rancher. “You could say only traditional farmers or ranchers. You could say it could include commercial farms. It could cover dog raising. Those are the questions that aren’t decided.”

Amendment opponent

That vagueness has fueled a flame behind former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell. He owns a farm in the Kirksville area and is loudly opposed to the “right to farm” measure. Maxwell, who is vice president of outreach and engagement at the Humane Society of the United States, said he opposes the measure because of his concerns about the protection such an amendment would offer corporate farming operations.

“The language on the ballot is purposefully deceptive. It states that citizens will have that right to farm. The language in the amendment says farmers and ranchers,” Maxwell said during a meeting Wednesday at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. “That’s significant if you understand decisions made since 1886. The U.S. Supreme Court has been willing to give corporations legal standing in our Constitution.”

The meeting at MSSU, organized by the Southwest Missouri Democrats, was originally supposed to be a debate between Reiboldt and Maxwell. But after receiving pressure last week from Missouri Farmers Care — a group representing all of the commodity and agriculture groups organizing the campaign in favor of “right to farm” — Reiboldt announced that he would not participate in the debate.

“I could hold my own. I’m not afraid to, it’s just not all about me,” Reiboldt said. “Missouri Farmers Care and agriculture groups didn’t want to give a platform for him (Maxwell) to spread his radicalism.”

Maxwell — pointing to an empty chair left on the stage for Reiboldt — said Reiboldt’s decision to back out of the debate says less about him than it does about Missouri Farmers Care and the organizations supporting the measure that he accused of being afraid to debate.

Maxwell was critical of the amendment’s potential impact on some efforts to require labeling of genetically modified foods, and he raised the concern that such a measure could threaten a state law limiting foreign ownership of Missouri farmland.

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