Letter From Langdon: Puppy Mills and Disappearing Farmers
[imgbelt img=Missouriarch.jpg] Why buy the farm when you can rent the farmer? And to make it easier, why not put a downpayment on the legislature, too.
Technology and overproduction have led to collapse in the self-employed ag jobs market. Big agribusiness has taken over from family farmers. It doesn’t help that in places like Missouri, legislative favors no one gave to family agriculture are now promoted as an imperative for saving the (agribusiness) farm.
What they’re really about is saving the corporate bacon.
A few farmers are still around who couldn’t make a living selling their own hogs. They now grow them on contract for big corporations. It seems strange that a guy who couldn’t recover enough profit to pay costs and a living wage now pours money into new buildings and labor to raise animals for his former buyer.
Packer-producers, the ones who feed, process and sell animals, want our farms. They’ve been getting them one piece at a time for quite a while now. But it’s cheaper just to own the farmer than buy his land. So that’s what they do, and they’ve devised all manner of sticky traps to catch and hold us.
Of course they deny it, but if you were Elmer Fudd stalking a big prize, wouldn’t you whistle a cheery tune and look the other way just so Bambi doesn’t get wise?
When the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) came to Missouri and helped to pass Proposition B, a voter mandate for strict downsizing and regulation of dog breeders, the elephant graveyard of agriculture suddenly came to life. That’s because everyone thought that if dogs were first on the HSUS list, corporate hogs would be next.
Practically every rural area of the state except for the Bootheel (the southeast corner of Missouri) voted against Prop B. That gave elected officials a reason (or an excuse) to take on HSUS.
It never fails to raise a few eyebrows when elected officials go against the wishes of voters. In this case the majority of voters who favored Prop B were concentrated in St Louis and Kansas City where negative perceptions of puppy mills abound.
The General Assembly didn’t waste much time. Sporting the biggest conservative majority ever, they tackled the newly approved rules by removing limits on dog numbers, setting higher penalties for lawbreakers, and establishing a new tax on dog breeders to pay for additional oversight.
Breeder fees were the Gov. Jay Nixon’s idea. He used to be the Attorney General. You can’t blame a law and order guy on a tight budget for wanting to preserve and protect the common good, even if it’s on a shoestring. The newly passed tax only affects a small minority in the state — either breeders or pet buyers, depending on who you think actually pays for it.
Now for a buck or two more, that doggy in the window will be guaranteed to be humanely raised and socially acceptable. (Or, at least, that was going to be the compromise. Late Tuesday, the compromise began to fall apart. Democracy in action!)
It’s popular for farmers to hate HSUS. Corporations especially encourage it. That’s because corporations have more to lose than farmers if HSUS eventually gets its way. The way I look at it, if guys in business suits are going to take away my job, does it really matter who they work for?
Anyone — big packers, big retailers, or big animal rights — who takes away my opportunity and profitability is my adversary. Not only do they drive up costs and challenge my right to a decent living, they drive up the cost of food, too.
Now that corporations make big bucks doing things farmers aren’t allowed to make a profit doing, they have millions for defense but not one dime for tribute. For instance, take Premium Standard Farms in northern Missouri.
According to one attorney involved in recent lawsuits against PSF, the company spent close to $20 million defending a losing a battle. And there was $11 million more in judgments when the jury found in favor of plaintiffs who charged that odors from PSF damaged their property.
And they say there’s no money in raising hogs. Where did all that come from?
The company could have spent that $30 million to fix oozing lagoons and remove rotting carcasses that led to the lawsuits in the first place. It would have been more than enough. Any self-respecting farmer faced with the choice of paying fines or doing the job right would make capital investments in facilities to fix the problem and depreciate them on tax forms to minimize their cost.
That’s not always the way corporate Missouri works.
What happened instead was that bankrupt PSF, now owned by Smithfield, got some local legislators ( State Senator Brad Lager and State Representative Casey Guernsey) to draft legislation making it impossible for citizens to sue PSF and other hog producers for damages. Smithfield was a significant contributor to these lawmakers in the last election.
According to PSF, Lager and Guernsey, smelly pork’s not the problem. It’s the neighbors.
It is now state law that if your farm becomes uninhabitable due to ooze and stink coming from a neighbor (say, a neighbor like PSF), if the pond in your pasture or your well water becomes fouled, if the neighboring CAFO sickens your own herd or you, you can sue, but only for the lost value of your property, and only until the total value of your property is completely used up.
If your land is ruined and your house in uninhabitable, the most you can get from the people (or company) that destroyed your heritage is the value of your property.
I guess they figure when the money’s gone, the complaints will be too.
Missouri gives away billions in tax credits to big corporations every year rather than spend them doing things like regulation, law enforcement, and ensuring the public good. In Missouri we barely have money enough to do the basics.
One idea for a cure to financial ills that almost always seems to fall flat with the General Assembly is increases taxes. But even though average citizens (and newly taxed dog breeders) still pay, taxing, or at least ending tax credits for the richest businesses is way off limits.
In solving the dilemma of Proposition B and snatching victory from the jaws of HSUS defeat, even if they can’t pave the highways the General Assembly has paved the way for a bigger, badder corporate hog.
But just because Big Pig has been pardoned on charges of being a bad neighbor, it doesn’t mean Corporate Hog should get a free pass. All we really need to do is tax hogs the same way we tax dogs.
If a breeder with 1,000 dogs pays a licensing fee of $2,500, then at the rate of $2.50 per animal we could license hog breeders the same way. Politically well connected Smithfield, Cargill, or even pesky PSF with 250,000 hogs could pay the state to head off HSUS and defray added expenses of humane oversight now that they’ve won the legislative lottery.
It would only cost a penny a pound. Consumers wouldn’t even notice.
Like the wronged taxpayers in Missouri hog country have learned from their lost property rights, paybacks can be Hell.
Maybe we could at least hire an out of work hog farmer to be tax collector.
Richard Oswald is a fifth generation farmer living in Langdon, Missouri. He is president of the Missouri Farmers Union. And he notes that there will be a rally on the south steps of the state capitol Wednesday at 5 p.m. in support of a compromise in the Puppy Mill Bill.