Senator seeks state control of agricultural operations
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Senator seeks state control of agricultural operations

Date: February 16, 2007
By: Gavin Off
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 364

JEFFERSON CITY - For at least two years, the lagoon on Charles Sears' Pettis County hog farm leaked, spilling an estimated 5,000 gallons to 10,000 gallons of waste into a nearby stream each week.

For two years, Sears said he asked the Missouri Natural Resources Department to help solve the problem. But department representatives never inspected the site, he said. They even skipped their mandatory annual inspection of the farm.

 

"The state is not doing their job," said Sears, adding the only state cooperation he has received was from the Attorney General's Office.

 

Sears, a former contract farmer, no longer raises hogs. But his confidence in the state's ability to regulate agricultural operations remains low.

 

Sears said the state does not have the personnel to properly supervise Missouri's concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) -- large farms with thousands of animals. State officials continually failed to inspect his farm, he said. Some even told him to keep quiet about his lagoon leak.

 

"There's a lot of things that should be changed," Sears said.

 

Nullifying existing health ordinances and taking control from local government's is not a change Sears views as beneficial.

 

 But that's what the state is considering,

 

A bill sponsored by a western Missouri senator could nullify local ordinances governing agricultural operations, giving the state nearly sole authority in regulating farming-related activities.

 

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, would prohibit local governments from adopting or upholding agricultural health regulations that are stricter than the state's standards. The act would expunge local laws for licensing and operating farms that are not identical to state regulations.

 

The bill, supported by Gov. Matt Blunt, also gives farms greater protection against nuisance lawsuits.

 

Two years ago, former Sen. John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, proposed a similar bill, which passed in the Senate, but was defeated in the House. The issue has since divided Missouri's agricultural industry, often pitting environmentalists, smaller farmers and local officials against large-scale farmers and state officials.

 

"We've been dealing with this for a very long, long time," said Dick Burke, executive director of the Missouri Association of Counties, which opposes the bill. "Folks feel very strongly on both sides."

 

Sixteen Missouri counties, so far, have their own agricultural health ordinances, which control everything from livestock odor to setbacks between farms and homes. Most of these ordinances oversee health affects related to CAFOs.

 

"I was glad to have the laws to protect everybody," Sears said. "As long as I abide by the law, I was okay."

 

Among other stipulations, Pettis County's health ordinance, adopted in 1997, regulates where a farmer can spread animal waste, and where farmers could build CAFOs in relation to existing homes and communities.

 

Sears, however, said Pettis County commissioners, like state officials, could be more strict in their enforcement of the regulations.

 

Koster said he sponsored the bill to help Missouri establish a unified regulator structure that would govern agricultural operations in an environmentally friendly manner.

 

Koster argued that allowing regulations to vary from county to county could drive ranchers and farmers out of state, to locations where laws are unified and more lenient. Koster said many in the agricultural industry are already moving their businesses to South America.

 

"If we regulate agriculture at such a high level, Missouri's industries are already picking up and moving," Koster said.

 

Koster said the bill was a "major priority" for the legislature this session.

 

Sen. Dan Clemens, R-Marshfield, is the chairman of the Senate's Agricultural Committee. He said the state's animal agriculture business would disappear if counties continue to push their own health ordinances.

 

"A lot of focus, especially in north Missouri, has been to almost eliminate animal agriculture," Clemens said.

 

Agriculture is the state's number one industry, with animal agriculture making up 53 percent of the industry, Clemens said.

 

But Clemens said he was not in favor of a bill that would give the state complete control of the issue. He said county officials should have some input into regulating agricultural operations. Local officials could possibly serve as members of a mediation or advisory committee that would make recommendations to the state.

 

"We're looking to get a good compromise bill," Clemens said. "We're getting there."

 

One of the groups legislators are negotiating with is the Missouri Association of Counties.

 

Burke, from the association, called the bill -- as it is currently written -- a "bad piece of legislation," since it would strip local governments of their power.

 

"If you take all this away, what's going to regulate these guys from being so dishonest," Sears said.

 

The association's Agricultural Impact Task Force recommended the state codify into state law a model county ordinance governing CAFOs. The task force also recommended that local and state groups continue to address odor and water quality concerns CAFOs produce, and that county health departments still be allowed to help combat disease and environmental hazards surrounding animal operations.

 

Burke said he hoped the association and legislators agreed on a compromise.

 

Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, which represents 5,500 member-families, said the center opposed any bill that would usurp local control. He said county governments needed individual ordinances because the state's minimum standards are too low.

 

"These aren't a bunch of people who want to make health ordinances," Gibbons said. "They're not radical commissioners."

 

"The county health ordinances would not be there if the state was doing its job," said Bob Svoboda, whose home and farm border a CAFO in Daviess County.

 

Svoboda also opposes the bill.

 

Gibbons said county health ordinances aren't meant to chase away CAFOs and other agricultural operations. Rather, the local ordinances are simply rules for such operations to abide by.

 

Gibbons also criticized the bills supporters for pandering to big business, which the health ordinances tend to regulate most. He said Koster's bill does not help support the average Missouri farmer.

 

"It's politicians being influenced by industry groups and money," Gibbons said.

 

Koster said he's simply acting as a moderator to the bill and has no personal agenda.

 

But Cargill and Premium Standard Farms, two of Missouri's largest hog producers, donated $26,500 to the state's Republican Party or to its candidates in 2006. Neither company contributed to Koster or the Democratic Party or its state candidates

 

Leslie Holloway, director of State and Local Government Affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, an organization that supports the act, said the strict county health ordinances aren't needed. Both the state and federal government already regulate agricultural operations. Plus, Holloway said local regulations are often based on conflicting science.

 

She also said farmers and ranchers need increased protection from nuisance lawsuits.

 

Koster's bill provides such protection. Under the bill, a farm would be allowed to "reasonably diversify or modernize under similar criteria" and remain protected from nuisance lawsuits and ordinance violations. The act also protects farms from nuisance lawsuits concerning clearing land, managing livestock, and applying pesticides and herbicides.

 

Holloway said officials adopted most laws protecting agricultural operations from lawsuits in the 1980s. The industry has since changed, she said, adding she has seen an increase in lawsuits against farms.

 

"We're afraid that protection isn't strong enough," Holloway said.