Leaders outline five bills aimed at boosting agriculture in Missouri

The Chair of the Missouri Democratic Party and the founder of Missouri’s Food for America shared the key aspects of a new “Farmer’s Bill of Rights” that includes five pieces of legislation set for presentation to the Missouri General Assembly in January 2018.

Stephen Webber, Chair of the Missouri Democratic Party and former state representative, said his tour has taken him through 80 Missouri counties so far, and he said “it’s pretty clear the status quo is not acceptable in rural Missouri,” citing examples like declining wages, growing rural poverty in relation to urban poverty and closures of hospitals and 16 school districts that are only open four days.

Webber presented the legislative goals at a stop in Hannibal on Wednesday, Dec. 6.

He said the health of rural communities is tied to family farms, but he said more multi-national conglomerates are taking ownership of family farms and discouraging free markets in agriculture.

“This is not inevitable, this did not have to happen,” Webber said. “This is the result of legislative policies set by the Republican supermajority in Jefferson City. And if it’s created by policy in Jefferson City, then it can be changed.”

Former state senator Wes Shoemyer echoed Webber’s sentiments about how to help Missouri’s agriculture industry.

“We have exported our most valuable resource — it’s been our children,” he said. “We have to understand that if we’re going to bring back our children, we’re going to have to have those policies enacted that bring wealth back to rural communities.”

Through the Farmer’s Bill of Rights, Webber and Shoemyer outlined the bills that Missouri Democrats plan to introduce at the beginning of 2018, addressing policy changes that key in on three rights for farmers: The right to fair and open markets, the right to local control of lands and the right to rural opportunities.

The proposed legislation includes:

• Putting an end to foreign ownership of farms: A bill regarding foreign ownership of Missouri farms would reference a 1978 law that stated “no foreign entity could own farmland in Missouri.” Additionally, the bill would call for increased transparency by requiring companies to report if their company has more than 20 percent foreign ownership.

• Modifications to Country-of Origin Labeling: Most food products include product labels that show the country of origin, but pork and beef products do not. Mirroring a bill recently filed in Colorado, this legislation would require retailers that sell pork or beef to apply a label showing where the food came from.

• Protect local regulation of Concentration Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs): The bill would return regulating abilities for CAFOs to Missouri counties. Webber said previous laws have attempted to help big corporations by removing regulatory abilities from those entities.

• Reverse Clean Water Commission legislation: In 2016. a law reversed then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would have given farming and mining interests more of a say in state water policies. The proposed bill would shift control back to local farming communities, supporters said, and would help hold corporations accountable for practices that harm family farmers.

• Transparency for contract growers: The policy would allow a six-month moratorium on canceling contracts for poultry growers, Webber said, “restoring some of the balance of power in favor of family farmers.” He said that large corporations can cancel a producer’s contract in retaliation for a producer speaking their mind on Facebook or through other outlets.

Webber said that offering safeguards for fair markets in Missouri’s agriculture is crucial, and he noted that people he met so far have offered strong support.

“There’s such a corporate stranglehold that a lot of Missouri farmers are worried about speaking up, and they’re grateful that someone else is doing it,” Webber said.

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com