On this clear October day, the combine and cover-crop drill have been running all afternoon and will continue until well after dark. But around 5:30 p.m., the farmers pull their equipment to the edge of the field, where their wives have spread out pizza, veggies and fruit on a truck tailgate for a pickup picnic. It’s a busy time of year, but three generations of the Brinker family still take time to gather for supper together.
It’s a scene is worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting—far from the “corporate factory farm” that operations such as the Brinkers’ swine and row-crop farm are often labeled. Just because a farm is large doesn’t mean it’s corporately owned. And just because its pigs are raised in a concentrated area feeding operation (CAFO) doesn’t mean the farm is a “factory.” The term connotes uncaring, unfeeling and industrial—not the case for most family-owned CAFOs in MFA territory.
Yes, the Brinker farm, featured in our cover story on farm labor, is a technically a CAFO—defined as livestock operations that reach a certain threshold of animals, for example, 2,500 pigs or 700 dairy cows. But, in building their farm, the Brinkers weren’t just aiming toward high production. They wanted to create a business that was large enough to support four families: patriarch Kenny and his wife, Susan, and their three children, who, collectively, have seven children of their own. The farm generates enough income that the farm wives are able to stay home with their babies until they’re school age, an enviable position for many moms.
It’s hardly the negative picture that many CAFO opponents would like to paint. But those naysayers have had plenty of opportunity to denounce CAFOs this year during debates over Missouri Senate Bill 391, which Gov. Mike Parson signed in May. The bill prohibits county commissions and health boards from enacting regulations on livestock farms that are inconsistent with or more stringent than state law.
Until this bill was passed, plans to establish CAFOs could be halted in the name of health by local governments. Some 20 counties in Missouri have put these so-called “health ordinances” in place. Those county officials argue that they’re protecting their citizens and local farmers by keeping out large factory farms, but what they also do is keep producers like the Brinkers from building or expanding livestock operations to support their families and preserve their farms for future generations.
Proponents of Senate Bill 391 insist that it’s needed to stop these “scientifically unfounded” ordinances. CAFOs are already overseen and strictly regulated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which takes into account concerns of local citizens and potential environmental issues during the permitting process. Under SB 391, producers who want to build a new facility or expand an existing one have to demonstrate to DNR that they can meet several rules and design criteria. They must provide neighbor notices, meet buffer distances and write plans for animal, nutrient and manure management. In other words, the bill provides consistent oversight without the need for local regulations.
After Gov. Parson signed the bill, it was supposed to take effect Aug. 28. But a court order temporarily stopped its implementation due to a lawsuit seeking to overturn it. The governor and ag organizations who worked for the legislation’s passage are among those named in the suit, which alleges SB 391 is unconstitutional and infringes on local control. However, a strongly worded press release from the respondents promises to aggressively fight the suit, painting the participants as anti-agriculture, anti-free speech and “hell-bent on overturning the work of the Missouri legislature.”
On Sept. 11, Cole County Judge Dan Green lifted the restraining order on SB 391, which means the law is now in effect. He cited the fact that the defendants in the suit weren’t given proper notice and also canceled an initial hearing for the lawsuit. But it’s not over yet. A new hearing is scheduled for December.
As the legal battle continues, the ultimate outcome is up to the whims of the legal system. I realize there are always exceptions and that not all CAFOs are model examples like the Brinker farm. But large-scale livestock operations most certainly have their place in the agricultural landscape, just like smaller farms. Without SB 391, we have the potential for all 114 counties in Missouri to write their own rules, which could be a nightmare for the advancement of agriculture and economic growth. It just makes sense to have fair and consistent regulations for establishing livestock operations across the state. Let’s hope the courts eventually determine the same.
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