Letter from Langdon: Overseeing Livestock

Who'll control livestock production? The issue is heating up in Missouri as lawmakers consider a proposed livestock care standards board.

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Back in George Washington’s day, the government played a limited role. Like the Preamble to the Constitution says, the federal government established justice, insured domestic tranquility, provided for the common defense, promoted the general welfare, and secured the blessings of liberty.

And that was it. The government didn’t exert control, didn’t tell people what they could do. Instead, the people established government to do what they wanted — with liberty and justice for all.

Obviously not everyone in government believes in that principle today, which is why last week a group from Missouri had to meet at the state capitol in Jefferson City — to speak against yet more proposed legislation that would establish yet another state control board.

Called together by the Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC), the group learned that a coalition known as Missouri Ag Alliance supports the concept of a livestock care standards board, also known as a livestock board. Some of the groups participating in the alliance are the Farm Bureau, Missouri Corn Growers, and Missouri Soybean Growers. The Missouri Ag Alliance is reportedly raising a war chest of funds to help impose the legislation in this election year, (incidentally, Missouri currently has no campaign funding limits).

The Missouri Farmers Union (disclosure: I’m chairman of the MFU board) has joined MRCC and other rural family farm groups to oppose this new effort of government control.

Here in rural Missouri, animal control means good neighbors and tight fences. A phrase we like better is local control. We believe in the sovereign rights of states and the rights of citizens to run their communities as they see fit.

Missouri has been a battleground state on many issues, ever since marauding Civil-War-era Kansas bushwhackers convinced Great Grandpa Oswald that Platte City wasn’t good for his family’s health. That’s when Grandpa moved in just over the hill from Langdon.

However, the biggest battle lately hasn’t been with Kansas, but with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The only way Missouri communities can defend against being bushwhacked by giant hog barns is with local control. Still, some in our state government would like to see local control end forever.

Small farms may find unlikely allies in environmentalists and the recreation industry because of rising levels of e-coli in Missouri lakes and streams; many observers see concentrated animal populations as at least part of that problem. Local control might resolve that problem, but a politically appointed CAFO-motivated state board likely might not.

Like State Representative Tom Shively said, “There’s a big difference between supporting Premium Standard Farms and supporting Missouri family farms.”

Richard Oswald
Concerned citizens explained their opposition to a proposed livestock control board to Rhonda Perry and Jeff Harris, at right, of Missouri governor Jay Nixon’s staff. The meeting took place in Jefferson City Jan. 12.
Hardly anyone supported animal control at the state level last week. In fact, most of the legislators we talked to that day reacted with shock or outright denial.

In an email news release issued after the January 12th event, the MRCC said, “More corporate bureaucracy and less access to the democratic process would be detrimental to family farmers, rural citizens and consumers who care how their food is produced.”

What would a Livestock Board do? With national animal identification still on a lot of people’s minds, there is concern that an imperial livestock board might activate state-wide animal tagging. No one knows for sure, but there are suspicions that the wholly appointed group would only answer to big agribusiness. That could mean the creation of more and bigger CAFOs, leaving Missouri family farms to struggle with a growing bureaucracy and new taxes.

Ohio farmer Gary Kaffenbarger inspected his young hogs in New Carlisle, 2009. In November, Ohio established a state livestock control board to oversee producers.

That’s what happened in Ohio recently when that state established a livestock board. Ohio now has proposed a tax on feed to fund operation of the new state board. Ohio’s Ag Director Robert J. Boggs even came to Missouri in early January to talk about their ballot initiative. It is thought that the Ohio measure will be the national model for animal control and its funding. Initially Ohio plans to spend about a half million dollars annually on this effort, with support from the Ohio Farm Bureau.

For some challenged livestock operations, unfavorable weather has compounded the hardships of low returns and higher costs. USDA has finally approved some aid for problems related to 2008 weather.

Also, over the last three years feed costs have become a problem for livestock producers accustomed to low grain prices. Cheap grain was a result of federal Freedom to Farm legislation that helped drive down the prices of feed grain and oil seeds. But new energy and industrial uses, as well as unbridled speculation in futures markets, drove grains to unprecedented highs beginning in late 2007.

Row crop farmers needed higher grain prices to help cover their own rising energy and seed costs, but most were surprised by the extent of the rally. Lately the price of grain has fallen, and milk prices at the farm level are on the rise. USDA has offered aid to dairy farms in the form of higher milk price supports, but much of the damage has already been done because many dairies have lost most if not all the equity they held in their farms. A few have given up altogether.

(Equity is the positive difference between the debts the farm owes subtracted from what the farm is actually worth. Some farms have no equity left to borrow against.)

Unlike Wall Street bankers, farmers only get to spend those dollars once before they’re gone. Now Missouri would burden farms with a new expensive level of regulation and taxes even as the state is experiencing a $2 billion deficit.

While some in the General Assembly contemplate bigger government, Governor Jay Nixon has said he intends to disband more than thirty costly, do-nothing state boards and commissions comprised of over 470 appointed positions. For independent minded Missourians, that could be a preamble to better times.

 

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