LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Imprecise language raises questions about "Right to Farm"

Thursday, July 31, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 31, 2014

I noted with interest Senator Parson’s comments (Letter to Editor, Columbia Missourian, July 22, 2014): “I had the privilege of being heavily involved in the drafting of the language of Amendment 1. I approached this task from the perspective of being a small farmer myself ... This legislation was drafted by farmer/legislators for farmers and ranchers.”

This is the ballot wording they developed: “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranging practices shall not be infringed?”

I had to read it several times to be sure I understood the meaning. I have a feeling some legal “wordsmiths” gave counsel in the process.

The proposed amendment is often referred to as the “Right to Farm” amendment, but farmers and ranchers are not even mentioned in the ballot language. Instead the word is “citizens.”

I wonder why citizens and not farmers and ranchers? Could it be that the Supreme Court recently proclaimed corporations to be citizens? Could it be the intent is that the right of corporate citizens based in Missouri, or from other states or nations who have business operations in Missouri, to “engage in agricultural production and ranging practices shall not be infringed?”

And why “agricultural production” instead of tilling the soil or farming? Could it be the wide, inclusive term “agricultural production” is meant to include the many dimensions of agribusiness that are closely related to farming — petroleum products, agricultural chemicals, marketing procedures — and no infringement on their activities?

“Ranging practices” reminds me of childhood days when some Missouri counties had “open-range” laws that allowed livestock to wander wherever in search of pasture and could often be found crossing or sleeping on highways. I assume that not allowing infringement of ranging practices is not intended to revert to open range; but I wonder what does it mean? Maybe no regulation of pen size or crowded conditions or pollution of streams, or something else?

And “shall not be infringed.” I confess infringed is not part of my regular vocabulary, so I turned to Webster’s Dictionary and found: “Infringe: to encroach.”

That didn’t help much, so I looked up “encroach: to make gradual inroads.” So, how to interpret? Does that mean no “gradual inroads” (regulation) of “agricultural production and ranging practices”?

Does that mean we have arrived? That the present practices of agricultural production and ranging practices are perfect and should be enshrined forever, as is, regardless of how the rest of the world changes? Does anyone really believe that?

And finally: Why a constitutional amendment? Is this a precedent we want to set for our society? If we decide we must not infringe on the rights of citizens “to engage in agricultural production and ranging practices,” how long will it be until bankers, health care professionals, manufacturers of drugs, automobiles etc. will be asking for equal treatment?

Cleo Kottwitz lives in Columbia.

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