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Missouri governor's veto could help state's family farmers

(Monday, June 28, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- by Bill Christison in the June 27 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune (Missouri):
For more than a decade, Missouri farmers, rural residents and citizens concerned about the environment have been working together to make sure our state doesn’t become a dumping ground for giant industrial livestock facilities. This year, in the face of attempts to roll back public accountability and environmental safeguards we’ve been able to establish over the years, Jefferson City seemed like it was in a time warp. It seemed as if we were smack dab in the middle of the early 1990s once again, with a war going on about the shape of Missouri’s livestock industry.

The industrial livestock lobby - the Farm Bureau, Missouri Pork Association, Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, etc. - was at it again, claiming giant, confined animal feeding operations are what modern agriculture is all about. They want us to believe Missouri will see huge benefits if only it would open its arms wide to industrial livestock and offer lucrative economic development incentives, tax breaks and rollbacks in state public accountability standards.

Livestock has always been, and should continue to be, an integral part of Missouri’s economy and a key to sustainable farming operations. Our abundant pastures, adequate water and diverse geography make Missouri the right place for diversified crops and livestock farms.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. A hog raised by Premium Standard Farms and a hog raised by diversified independent family farmers in Livingston County have two different impacts on Missouri’s economy and environment. We need to be concerned with who owns the livestock, how livestock is raised and who benefits from the production and sales of livestock.

In Missouri, we’ve had more than a decade of experience in evaluating the effects of industrial livestock, and the record is not good. Far from being the savior of rural areas, industrial livestock operations have been a disaster for Missouri’s economy, environment and rural communities.

Factory farms decrease property values in areas that surround them. Farms and communities within a few miles of factory farms have had their property devalued by 5 percent to 50 percent depending on the distance, according to a University of Missouri study and the Appraisal Journal.

Industrial livestock facilities generate massive amounts of manure, which poses a dangerous threat to the air and water in rural areas. In three northern Missouri counties, Premium Standard Farms produces 1.6 million hogs per year. These facilities generate the same waste as a city of more than 2 million people. They have discharged more than a million gallons of liquefied feces into our streams and rivers.

Factory farm income usually is siphoned off as profit for investors, but family farm hog producers turn to other businesses in their communities to provide the needed inputs for their farms. Studies indicate that when comparing an equal number of sows on factory farms versus family farms, the family farm system creates 10 percent more permanent jobs, a 20 percent larger increase in local retail sales and a 37 percent larger increase in local income per capita.

A University of Missouri study found factory farms create a net loss of employment because they drive family farmers and the local merchants who depend upon them out of business. Twelve thousand hogs produced under factory farm contracts would create 9.44 jobs, but they would displace 27.97 jobs.

Industrial hog production has meant a huge decline in the number of hog farmers in Missouri, down from 10,500 in 1994 to about 2,800 today. During the same period, the price consumers paid for pork climbed 35 percent from an average of $1.97 per pound to $2.66 and the farmer’s share of the retail dollar plummeted nearly 38 percent, from 37 cents to 23.

With their vast financial resources, industrial livestock supporters are skilled at generating a smokescreen to hide behind family farmers even though they’re promoting an industrial livestock agenda. They would like everyone to believe farmers are having a hard time making it because of "harsh government regulations" A closer look at the facts reveals a different story. Of 110,000 Missouri farms, only 438 are subject to the statutory public accountability and environmental safeguards giant livestock operators are trying to roll back. This "over-regulation" story is a red herring used to distract us from the real issue, which is who wins and who loses because of industrial livestock development.

The truth is we have a choice. We can either choose to support Missouri family farm livestock producers, or we can choose the industrial livestock facility path. Gov. Bob Holden has an opportunity to stand up for family farmers, rural communities and the environment by vetoing HB 1177. With a veto, he would be heading down the right path to environmental and economic sustainability for rural communities.

If the governor and the state legislature are serious about supporting family farmers, they should promote measures that would truly help level the playing field, including:

  • eliminating taxpayer subsidies to corporate factory farms;
  • supporting a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock;
  • holding factory farm corporations financially liable for pollution caused by their operations; and
  • encouraging or requiring state institutions to use their food-buying dollars to support local family-farm-produced food.

Bill Christison is a livestock and grain farmer from Livingston County. He is president of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a farm and rural organization with 5,500 member families.

Source: http://www.showmenews.com/2004/Jun/20040627Comm009.asp