Missouri Rep. Tom Loehner sponsored the Right To Raise Animals bill. (Jessica Naudziunas/Harvest Public Media)
When I travel to meet Missouri farmers, the last leg of the trip often is a turn down a dusty gravel or dirt road, far away from urban centers and busy interstates. These country roads are laid down with four-wheel drive trucks in mind – vehicles fit for farm life – and my journalist sedan is not one of them. Custom also calls for KEEP OUT posted near the head of these rustic passages, or PRIVATE PROPERTY in bold letters on a metal sign perched on the edge of their property. For me, the rattled way to the farm, and the fair warning you receive before going in, are reminders that farmers mean business, and they’d really like it if you’d stay out of theirs.
It’s sort of understood that many Missouri livestock farmers would rather see state government keep its legislative reach from ever winding down these gravel roads. For one thing, they say, the government keeps changing the rules. Which is why there is now broad rural support for a proposed bill that would lock in the legality of the industrialized and efficient farming techniques on which they rely to make a profit.
Missouri Rep. Tom Loehner, who sponsored the bill, thinks powerhouse industry associations like the American Farm Bureau and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association won’t cut it as the voices for agriculture anymore. Loehner thinks the Missouri farmers he represents need legal protection from animal rights activists, naive consumers and urban dwellers. That’s why he backed the divisive Right to Raise Animals bill, which I reported on earlier.
Here’s the bill (PDF). At its heart is the divide between farmers who want to produce food and fuel at affordable prices and animal rights activists who feel they’re looking out for animal welfare. But there’s more.
Loehner’s bill would freeze in time Missouri’s current agricultural laws, so a group in Missouri would be unable to petition for a change in hog raising methods, for instance, or a ban on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Lisa Griffith, the outreach coordinator for the National Family Farm Coalition, sent me an email about my story on the bill. She argues that while the bill may pit ag producers against animal activists, the truth is more nuanced.
“If I understand it correctly, this bill would essentially preclude residents from opposing such an operation's construction and from suing the operation's owner/manager,” Griffith wrote. She sees the bill not as protecting Missouri’s agriculture per se, but protecting a certain kind of ag producer.
Loehner says his bill is looking to protect farmers from outside influences he says have no idea how farm life works. What looks inhumane to an urban dweller, Loehner says, might look totally normal to a born-and-raised farm boy. The disconnect, he says, comes with two cultures, rural and urban, colliding in a misunderstanding. Animal rights groups, on the other hand, can serve as valuable watch dogs in making sure animals aren’t abused. And, as Griffith points out, it’s not necessarily only animal protection groups who might be interested in challenging enshrined agricultural practices. It’s difficult ground.
While reporting my story I spoke with independent hog broker Rick Bax from Osage County, Mo. Quite frankly, he’s sick of consumers telling him that livestock farmers don’t care about their animals. He says he doesn’t know a hog farmer that would mistreat an animal.
Of course, it might be that Bax’s idea of mistreatment looks different from the one in PETA’s imagination. For instance, when I pulled up to his barn, a shipment of hogs had just rolled in. To get the road-weary animals off the truck, Bax and his client slapped the pigs on the behind to get them moving. The pigs moved and it was business as usual. Now, was that mistreatment that should be punishable by law, or a method that should be protected by law?
The supporters of Loehner’s bill see their industry surrounded by more and more people with a hunger to learn more about food production, many of whom don’t like the way their food is raised. Of course, regardless of a Missouri law on the books, they’re going to show farmers what they prefer with their list of groceries – even if they don’t understand why they want to buy that free-range organic dozen eggs.