Communities in Missouri have been fighting the expansion of large-scale livestock operations in the state for years. But a controversial pair of bills moving through the state legislature would make community oversight of those farms even harder. The bills would eliminate local ordinances that regulate industrial animal farms in the state, or make it impossible to enforce those ordinances. The bills mirror trends in other states where legislators have moved to undermine local control of large-scale livestock farms.
One of the bills, Senate Bill 391, would prevent county commissions and health boards from adopting new restrictions on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that are more stringent than state law. It also would eliminate existing local regulations, some of which have been in place since the 1990s. House Bill 951, meanwhile, would take away the authority of county commissions and health boards to inspect livestock operations, making it nearly impossible to implement existing local regulations that exceed state requirements. The Senate and House have passed their respective bills, and both pieces of legislation are currently being considered by the other body as the state’s legislative session nears its end.
The bills are supported by agribusiness groups. The Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, Missouri Pork Association, Missouri Soybean Association, and Missouri Corn Growers Association released a joint statement celebrating SB 391’s passage in the Senate as a “tremendous initial victory.”
Agribusiness groups have framed the issue as one of consistency across regulatory bodies. “Ensuring our animals are cared for under science-based regulations and expert oversight is best for their welfare and for our environment,” the statement reads. “Uniform regulations will help provide opportunities for young and old alike to be involved in agriculture and stay on the family farm.”
But Michael Berg, an organizer with the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, says that uniformity isn’t enough justification for this dramatic change. “If you want uniform standards, that should also come with tightening protections for water quality, tightening protections for health, tightening protections against odors,” he says. But any proposed amendments to the bills along those lines, he adds, were rejected. “It doesn’t look like the real reason is to have uniform standards. The real reason is to have lower standards.”
Over the past three decades, 20 Missouri counties have adopted county or township health and zoning ordinances to more stringently regulate CAFOs, such as requiring permits for smaller CAFOs and increasing how far CAFOs must be from residences and water sources. Last year, for instance, Cooper County passed an ordinance prohibiting any manure dumping with 100 feet of an occupied residence.
Under the state’s proposed legislation, that ordinance would be eliminated, and the setback would revert to the state requirement of just 50 feet. Opponents of the legislation say that one-size-fits-all regulations are inappropriate in a state where topography varies widely from county to county, and that the state laws don’t do enough to protect residents from the air and water pollution caused by CAFOs.
“Local control is a way that rural people and family farmers and local elected representatives have been able to pass additional safeguards … that hold these CAFOs accountable to the people that live there,” says Tim Gibbons, communications director at the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “And they’re common-sense protections.”
Local ordinances have also provided communities with some leverage over large-scale farm operators that are increasingly headquartered out-of-state and are therefore less accessible to Missouri residents. For instance, Pipestone System, a CAFO operator, has been expanding its presence in the state but is based in Minnesota. Because of consolidation in the agribusiness sector, many powerful livestock companies that operate in the U.S., like Smithfield and JBS, are foreign-owned. Local control “[protects] farmers, rural people, our water, our air, our communities, our health from these absentee-controlled and now foreign-controlled industrial livestock operations,” Gibbons says.
Missouri’s legislative session ends on May 17. SB 391 was introduced by Republican Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, who represents the state’s sixth district. HB 951 was introduced by Republican Rep. Kent Haden, a former Missouri Department of Agriculture inspector.
Across the country, local control dwindles
Missouri is not the only state where regulators and elected officials have moved to undermine local oversight of large livestock farms. In 2017, the Tennessee legislature passed two laws that eliminated state regulations of CAFOs that exceeded federal law. That bill was backed by the Tennessee Dairy Producers Association and the Tennessee Poultry Association.
That same year the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association sued the state’s environmental agency over a requirement that all CAFOs obtain an operating permit, which is not required by federal law. The state’s Department of Natural Resources settled with the group to rescind those requirements, though environmental groups have since sued to restore them.
The decline of local control over agricultural practices has concerned many environmental, farm, and rural advocates who say federal and state laws don’t go far enough in protecting communities and the environment from the pollution associated with CAFOs. For instance, all but the largest CAFOs in Missouri are exempt from any odor-emission regulations.
And some of the federal and state laws that do exist have been weakened as a result of industry pressure. Recently, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress took action to exempt CAFOs from federal and state air emissions reporting requirements after a push from agribusiness.
For local residents, bills signal growing power of Big Ag
In tiny Lone Jack, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City, residents have been fighting a proposed CAFO for more than a year. Valley Oaks, a local cattle farm, sought to expand its herd from around 600 cows to nearly 7,000 in an area with no comparably sized operations. After a long effort, community members obtained an injunction on the farm’s expansion until 2020. But with the new legislative threats to local control, they find themselves fighting battles that extend far beyond their backyards.
One of the groups spearheading the charge against the expansion of Valley Oaks is Powell Gardens, a local botanical garden. Tabitha Schmidt, Powell Gardens’ CEO and president, says that their focus has until recently been primarily on Valley Oaks, and not broader agricultural issues. But the introduction of SB 391 and HB951 has pushed the garden’s community into state politics, too.
“Our county is our biggest issue,” Schmidt says. “But if they’re going to remove local control across the whole state, every county’s going to be facing issues. I don’t know why in the world you would want to take away local control because local people are the one that have to deal with it.”
Missouri is no stranger to the growing power of the agriculture industry in the statehouse and regulatory sphere. In late 2017, then-Gov. Eric Greitens replaced several members of the state’s Clean Water Commission with agriculture industry representatives, including the president of the Wright County Farm Bureau and a former executive director of the Missouri Beef Industry Council. The newly-appointed commissioners moved quickly to approve two controversial CAFOs that the commission had previously rejected.
Missouri has largely avoided the influx of CAFOs has hit its neighbors in recent decades, due in part to local regulation and efforts by community groups. Iowa, for instance, has an estimated 10,000 CAFOs while Missouri has just over 500. Local advocates point to this as a success, especially given Iowa’s ongoing struggle with water contamination from farm runoff.
“These bills take away the ability of counties to enact ordinances to protect their water and protect their citizens from the dangers of the pollution of CAFOs,” says Sierra Club’s Berg. “If there wasn’t a need for this, the people of these counties would not have enacted these ordinances in the first place. We see this as large agri-industry asserting its dominance against the will of people in rural communities.”