Semi View: Court ruling sends chills through ag community
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.