Semi View: Court ruling sends chills through ag community

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I usually try to make my columns humorous. However, in the last few weeks, recent events involving agriculture are anything but funny.

In fact, I'm worried about the future of family farms in the United States. I'm also worried about the future of anybody that eats in America. (And that's all of us.)

Despite what some people seem to think, those two things are forever linked together. Pork, beef and milk do not come from a grocery store -- they come from a farm.

A recent ruling by Judge Patricia Joyce in Cole County ruled that no concentrated animal feeding operation could be located within 15 miles of the village of Arrow Rock, nearby State historic sites and national-listed Prairie Park, in the state of Missouri.

It also stated "No Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation can transport, spread or otherwise deposit or dispose of any waste from its operation within a 15-mile radius of those places."

Right now Department of Agriculture officials say that the ruling is not binding to any existing operations.

However, if that ruling is not appealed and becomes case law or is found to be binding it could be the end of livestock farming in Missouri.

I fear it could also mean the "beginning of the end" for family farmers in the United States.

As for the future of eating in America, a ruling like this could also mean the end of knowing where our food comes from or how it is raised. Right now, Americans pay less of their take home paychecks on food than any other country in the world. That, too, could come to an end.

As many farmers have told me, "If we think being dependent on other countries for oil is bad, just wait until we are dependent on other countries for our food."

That scares me.

In the recent fight over Dennis Gesslings' proposed plan to put two modern hog buildings two miles from Arrow Rock it seemed that the worst-case scenario was just assumed.

A local poster on The Marshall Democrat-News Web site wrote, "These CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) businesses are corporations and not farmers. They do nothing but fatten stock for market."

That seems to be the general theme to those who have fought against the facility. They say that Gessling is not a farmer, but a "corporation."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

He is a family farmer who applied for a permit to expand his operation. In Gessling's case, he wants to expand so that his wife, stepsons and son eventually could have the option of working on the farm instead of another job in town or in another city.

"I have always dreamed of raising hogs and raising a family," he said.

You don't get any more "family farmer" than that. The only people who work on his farm are his family and one "part-time" employee. The sticking point seems to be that Gessling is raising the hogs on "contract" for another company. He is getting paid for doing a job well.

The money he and his family are paid will stay mostly right here in Saline County. Yes, a corporation does benefit, just like a corporation benefits every time I write a story for my local newspaper or my colleagues sell an ad.

A corporation also benefits every time we plant a seed that says Monsanto, Asgrow or Pioneer on the bag.

A corporation benefits every time we buy a tractor from John Deere.

Other people in other states, counties and countries own some of the land we farm. They, too, benefit when we raise a crop.

However, so do lots of people in Saline County who work at the local places we purchase our seed, feed, fertilizer and machinery. And like those employees, we pay taxes in this county, live in this county and shop in this county.

It seems that the activists are painting Gessling with the same brush as corporations such as Premium Standard Farms or Smithfield Foods. He is also paying for their sins. Some of those operations have thousands and thousands of hogs and yes, there have been violations.

Gessling and other family farmers in our county are not those companies. They follow the laws and many aren't even known to their neighbors.

However, if allowed to stand, Joyce's ruling would put them out of business. If they go out of business, it also affects the corn and soybean farmers here who raise the feed for the livestock.

Gessling's current operation is virtually the same size as his proposed buildings. He hasn't had complaints. He and the others do everything and more, according to the letter of the law. They have a stake in preserving their land for the next generation. Why would they want to "pollute" the water or air? The answer is simple, they don't and they won't.

I have been to those operations. Do they have a smell up close? Yes, sometimes they do. Two miles away, or even one mile a way, no there is very rarely a smell.

Another one of our posters wrote, "I'm a little sick of hearing everyone talk about CAFO's as if they are farms. Warehouses full of livestock that are treated like any other package in any other warehouse are not farms. "

As David Bentley, one of the hog farmers I interviewed said, yes you can call his buildings "factories" if you are talking about the efficiency of raising them in a building.

"But the 'anti-' people when they put factory farms in a negative content, saying, 'it's people who don't care, it's people who just come in doing a job,' that's offensive to me because that's not how it is. Anyone who has ever worked a hog farm or had anything to do with raising livestock -- they know better," he said.

The poster went on to write, "We should raise animals the way God intended them to be raised."

Well, with that logic, then didn't God intend us to live in caves? We didn't start out with the homes we have today. I've never read anything in the Bible about central heating and cooling. Or indoor plumbing, or refrigerators, or televisions ...

Yes, technology has changed agriculture. We are more efficient than we have ever been.

I often wonder why farmers seem to be expected to stay the same as the 1950s, while the rest of the country marches into the 21st century.

It's a good thing we have more technology and do our job better than ever before. The population of our country and our world has risen dramatically. If we were to raise chickens and hogs outside like they did in the 1940s and 1950s when there were fewer mouths to feed in the world, there would certainly be a shortage of food.

Remember, we can't make more farm acres in the U.S. and "urban sprawl" is taking up so much land that production would be limited. A short supply would mean prices would skyrocket and a large portion of Americans could not afford meat products. In many countries, meat is already a luxury.

Do we want that in America?

The buildings hogs are now raised in have been around since the 1960's on most of our local farms. Why?

Simple, it is better for the farmer and it is better for the pigs. The reason we know this is because pigs raised inside do better. They have more babies and those babies grow faster. And why wouldn't they?

As several farmers have told me, "they live better than many people in our own country." It's also better for our environment. Today's farmers have to account for every ounce of manure and they apply it to their fields for fertilizer. And just in case some don't realize that is the same kind of fertilizer put on "organically" grown fruits and vegetables.

Today's farmers adapted to a changing marketplace. They also embraced new technology so they could grow more food on fewer acres. (Remember urban sprawl?)

So the point is, where do we want our pork raised? Who do we want to raise it?

Not In My Back Yard may seem like a good idea if you are only looking at the small picture.

But look at the big picture, hogs are going to be raised somewhere. Americans like to eat bacon and pork chops.

Don't we want them raised by American family farmers, who have a large stake, in fact everything they own, invested into doing a good job and preserving their land for the next generation? Don't we want them raised where we can help make the laws and ensure the environment is protected?

Those 4,800 hogs will be raised somewhere, by someone. But will they do it with the care and love that a Gessling, Bentley or a Brent Sandidge might? I doubt it.

Then we go back to one less family farmer producing pork in Missouri. We have another son or daughter who goes off to college and doesn't come back to live and work in Saline County, because there isn't room on the family farm.

Then, eventually we have no family farms and corporations do take over. Or even worse, we no longer grow our food in the United States, but depend on other countries for our most basic need.

Like I said, I'm worried. I think we all should be.

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  • It worries me, too.

    Good column.

    -- Posted by talea on Tue, Sep 9, 2008, at 5:19 PM
  • A great article! The anti-animal agriculture crowd may have just successfully killed family farming in the area. I sure hope they are happy because it's making me sick.

    -- Posted by troyhad on Wed, Sep 10, 2008, at 9:02 AM
  • Great story I love your column. It is a shame people in this country can't understand the value of the farmer big or little where do they think food comes from? In my opinion if a guy wants to make a living raising hogs, good job! I want to know what can be done to let farmers be farmer, this is crazy trying to tell people what they can and can not do on the property that they own because it may or may not affect tourism. Was there any testing done to see if the odor would have bothered Arrow Rock before this went to court?

    Where is the proof that is would have affected those people in an adverse way? I am fairly sure had I been in the same boat I would have been in my attorneys ear wanting those answers given to me. I wish some people saw the big picture and not the veiw with the blinders on.

    -- Posted by litlmissme on Wed, Sep 10, 2008, at 4:02 PM
  • I something out, I understand that Arrow Rock is trying to preserve the way we lived "in the old days" if we continue to regulate the farmers out of business we may as well say they too will disappear like the old taverns and general stores of Arrow Rock. Be careful what you wish for!

    -- Posted by litlmissme on Wed, Sep 10, 2008, at 4:09 PM
  • Great Column! I am scared too Marcia, you are not alone. We must look beyond our property fence line and see the big picture. If we run livestock to foreign countries, not only will we pay 2 or 3 times more for our food, the environment will not be protected as it is now. American Farmers are REGULATED to death, almost to the point they can't afford to operate. Look at the cost of the equipment they have to use to incorporate their manure as fertilizer, that is not cheap but they are doing it to protect the environment. Foreign countries do not worry about protecting the environment - look at China & the Olympics if you don't believe me. How many countries threatened to not attend because of air quality? How many factories were shut down during the olympics just to clean up the air so the athletes would attend? American Farmers CARE, and many voluntarily go above and beyond the government regulations because they want to preserve their farms for their kids. I know AMERICAN farmers like the Gesslings, Bentleys & Sandidges care and they produce safe food for me. Don't run them out of business because of 1 judge, we must educate the judge and hope this case is overturned. Otherwise, kiss agriculture good bye in MO.

    -- Posted by farmmom on Thu, Sep 11, 2008, at 3:53 PM
  • Soon, the "smell of money" will no longer be in the air. Consumer's money will no longer be in their pockets, but headed overseas. "The other white meat" will be a delicacy. An unwise decision by a clueless judge will bring doom to the independent farmer if the decision is allowed to stand.

    -- Posted by red dog on Sat, Sep 13, 2008, at 4:45 PM
  • I understand that you are afraid, but I am also afraid of having my yard smell like pig feces. Also, I don't know if you've ever been to Arrow Rock, but it is a lovely little town, and if the CAFO were to be built, it would no longer be a national historic landmark, and we would no longer recieve grants to keep it from looking like...o well...probably Neslon. So I understand that you are afraid of no more animal factories (NOT FARMS), but i am also afraid of Arrow Rock and my home smelling like pig feces.

    -- Posted by pigsstink123 on Thu, Sep 18, 2008, at 12:08 PM
  • Dear pigstink123,

    I have been to Arrow Rock many times and I agree completely it is a lovely little town. I certainly, nor would any farmer I know, like to see it harmed. I simply do not believe, based on visiting other similar and larger farms that the town or yards would have smelled like "pig feces." I think the whiffs of hog smell would have been few and far between. And I am certain that hog farms up to 15 miles do not affect Arrow Rock in any way.

    As I said in the article, the proposed facility is a farm, a modern family farm. It is not economically or environmentally feasible in the 21st century to have "a few hogs" outside in the "dirt." (Which is much harder on the pig, by the way.) Nor is that method able to feed our growing population. As I have said before, farms have changed, just like all businesses (mom and pop grocery stores??) have changed. I respectively disagree that two buildings of pigs, taken care of by one farm family is an animal factory.

    Also, thank you to everyone else for the positive comments. I sincerely appreciate it.


    -- Posted by Marcia Gorrell on Thu, Sep 18, 2008, at 1:17 PM
  • Go figure pigstink, you move to a rural area and you smell rural smells. It might have been wise to consider that possibility before you moved here. I am sure this fight is long from over. How sad it is that a minority with money thinks that they can bully the majority around. Does anyone else find it ironic that these urban transplants want their houses historically correct and are afraid of a little hog smell? I am quite sure 150 years ago that the horses, milk cows, out houses, and pigs in everyones back yard in Arrow Rock also smelled. I think a little animal odor might make the whole place more historically correct!

    -- Posted by judgmental bast*** on Thu, Sep 18, 2008, at 4:19 PM
  • I have lived in Arrow Rock for most of my life. I think I have the right to control if my home smells like hog. Have you ever driven by a cafo in the middle of the summer? Well if you haven't, I'll let you know what it is like...IT STINKS! And I don't want my home smelling like hog feces. The cafo being built by Mr. Gessling was only TWO miles away, not 15. And im sure a pig would much rather be outside on dirt than in a warehouse with 2400 other pigs...what would you rather be in?

    -- Posted by pigsstink123 on Tue, Sep 23, 2008, at 8:28 AM
  • Pigstink,

    Apparently you'd didn't read the story above, or Judge Joyce's ruling.

    As for pigs being outside, anyone who knows anything about pigs knows they are better off inside. As for me, I'd much prefer being inside, that's why I live in a house, instead of a tent, or cave like our ancestors.

    -- Posted by judgmental bast*** on Sat, Sep 27, 2008, at 12:32 PM
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