Debate grows around right-to-farm measure as election approaches

Monday, July 7, 2014
Jeremie Nothdurft harvests a field of pale red winter wheat Thursday at his Cape Girardeau County farm. (Laura Simon)

Jeremie Nothdurft has farmed all his life. He still remembers his first farm job and sitting behind the wheel of a tractor at age 5.

His daughter, Eve, isn't quite old enough to help harvest this year's winter wheat, but he said there will be plenty of room for her to join the family farm one day.

Should she follow in her father's footsteps, Eve would be the sixth generation to farm those 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans in Cape Girardeau County.

Not far from the wheat field where Nothdurft and other members of the farm worked on a combine on a cool Thursday afternoon is a bright orange sign that says, "Yes on Amendment 1."

Nothdurft and his wife, Laura, who studied agriculture in college and has taught the subject on the high school level, support the measure commonly known as "right-to-farm," because they're worried about the future of the farming industry.

Jeremie Nothdurft harvests a field of pale red winter wheat Thursday at his Cape Girardeau County farm. (Laura Simon)

"There just seem to be more groups that are against farming and ranching," Jeremie Nothdurft said.

He understands people want to protect the environment and make sure farmers are responsible about the livestock and crops they're producing, but said he wants the same thing.

"Anything I do on my farm, I do to eat. It's feeding my daughter. Why would I intentionally do something that would harm my daughter?" Nothdurft said. "Right-to-farm just gives me the right to farm [the land] the way I see fit -- the way my dad, my granddad and great-granddad did."

Blake Hurst is president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, a group that supports Amendment 1. After watching farms close across the country as a result of GMO bans and overregulation of industries such as poultry, he questions where the line will be drawn.

"Every industry gets regulated by county, state and local governments -- including agriculture -- as they should be," Hurst said. "But no other industry is facing this, sort of, public attempt to do the sort of things that regulatory agencies with scientists and experts should be doing, and instead we're doing it by spending millions of dollars on political campaigns. There's no other industry facing that kind of threat."

Corporate farms

Charlie Meier loads straw bales onto a trailer Thursday at the Nothdurfts’ Cape Girardeau County farm. (Laura Simon)

The Missouri Farm Bureau is one of many agriculture groups that have delivered presentations across the state asking voters to support Amendment 1, but they have plenty of opposition circling the state as well. The Humane Society of the United States has been one of the biggest critics of the measure.

Amanda Good, Missouri state director for HSUS, said farmers already have farming rights.

"This isn't really about protecting our independent family farmers," she said. "It's really about protecting industrialized agriculture and these giant factory farms and foreign corporations that are buying up all of our farmland here and will be free to do with it whatever they choose if this amendment passes."

Good pointed to Chinese pork producer WH Group, which bought U.S. producer Smithfield Foods last year, and its recent purchase of thousands of acres of Missouri farmland. She said she believes a primary concern for people is whether Amendment 1 will open the door for factory farms to move in and push out family farms.

Charlie Meier, right, and John Nothdurft unclog a hay baler Thursday at the Nothdurfts’ Cape Girardeau County farm. (Laura Simon)

"I don't think this [amendment] solves anything, except for factory farms ... and those aren't the people we want to be protecting in the Missouri Constitution," she said.

Nothdurft said it's true, most farmers -- including small family farmers like himself -- wouldn't want to be neighbors with a large corporate farm, but he doesn't deny they have a place in the industry.

"We need all farmers, the smallest of the small and the biggest of the big, because there will come a day when we can't produce enough food for the rest of the world," he said.

Jeremie and Laura Nothdurft also noted they couldn't think of any farm they would consider a huge corporation. While some farmers choose to incorporate or run their businesses as LLCs for risk-management purposes, they said those farms are still primarily run by families.

'Backdoor repeal'

Charlie Meier loads straw bales onto a trailer Thursday at the Nothdurfts’ Cape Girardeau County farm. (Laura Simon)

Another concern that's been raised about right-to-farm is its connection to Proposition B, a 2010 measure narrowly approved by voters that limited the number of breeding dogs a business can own and created new rules for care.

"It's pretty obvious that this is basically a backdoor repeal of Prop B," Good said.

Once agricultural production and ranching practices are protected by the state Constitution, she said it creates an opportunity to push back against regulations already in place on the state or even the county and city levels. The vague language, which provides no definition of farming or ranching, exacerbates the problem, Good added.

"If somebody lived in a city where there were regulations on chickens or goats or whatever the case may be, someone could definitely argue in the courts that that's a violation of their right-to-farm," she said.

Hurst said it's important people understand the constitutional amendment will not be able to repeal or prevent regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency or other federal agencies. He also said creating the constitutional right wouldn't give farmers free reign to ignore laws, just as freedom of speech doesn't give a person the right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater.

Laura, left, 18-month-old Eve and Jeremie Nothdurft stand along one of the Nothdurfts’ fields of pale red winter wheat Thursday in Cape Girardeau County. (Laura Simon)

"We'll still be regulated, but it is going to make people think a little bit more about what regulations are really needed, and that's how it helps us," Hurst said.

Other groups have questioned if the amendment would really change anything at all. The Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation is not in favor of the measure, and its executive director has even referred to the amendment as silly. Like Good, he said he believes it guarantees a right farmers already have and will open the door to lawsuits down the road.

But all of the groups involved in the right-to-farm debate stand unanimous on one issue: public involvement. Frequently asked questions and statistics from those in favor of Amendment 1 may be found at keepmissourifarming.org. Additional data and questions for those against the measure may be found at votenoon1.com.

Laura Nothdurft said those who don't deal with farming and agriculture on a daily basis may not have a full understanding of the issues surrounding right-to-farm, but she encourages them to do their research before heading to the polls Aug. 5.

"Less than 2 percent of the population is involved in the production of agriculture, so there's just a real disconnect between the general public and the farmers, and some groups have taken advantage of that," she said.

srinehart@semissourian.com

388-3641

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