Tuesday, August 5, 2014

a right to farm?

I did a lot of weeding today, so naturally I had a lot of time to think. And what was on my mind much of the day was today's vote in Missouri on a constitutional amendment guaranteeing citizens' "right to farm." Or, as the question was stated on the ballot: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed?" (As of this writing, the voting results have not been finalized.)

For those of us not from Missouri (and that includes me), The New York Times on Sunday noted that Missouri has almost 100,000 farms within its borders, and a strong culture of, well, agriculture. Nonetheless, some of those 100,000 ranchers and farmers feel threatened by legislation passed by the citizenry in Missouri and elsewhere. (Jackson County's recent ban of GMO crops got a mention in the Times article.) They put the amendment forth as a way to protect their livelihood from those who would make decisions about it without understanding it.

The particulars of the matter aside, the question that I turned around and around in my mind all day was, Do we have a right to farm? Do I have a right to farm? Or, somewhere along the way, did "rights" become things we fling back and forth at each other whenever we feel challenged?

I do believe there are certain inalienable rights. One of them, according to my moral point of view, is the right to eat. And, society being what it is, it necessarily follows that we must have farms to grow the food that we all have a right to eat. But arguing that I or you or anybody has a "right" to farm implies that it is somehow wrong or immoral for anyone or anything to stand in the way of me or you or anybody doing it. And despite the fact that I am passionate about farming, and I am willing to give up a lot of creature comforts, financial security, and good sense in order to do it, the idea that it is my "right" does not sit well with me.

Say I never find a piece of farmland that I can afford to buy or lease. Or I bring my products to market and no one wants to buy them. How can I be a farmer if I have no land, or no customers? If I lived in Missouri, would I have recourse under the constitution to demand compensation for my infringed rights? Of course not. But that's not what the authors of this amendment had in mind. Here's how one rancher, Richard Le Jeune, was quoted in The New York Times:

"Some of these city people don't have a clue what goes on in the country and how food is produced. We need this [amendment] to keep the outsiders from trying to run things."

Um, I'm sorry. Outsiders? Some farmers would call them "customers."

I can understand the frustration. I can imagine how a professional might feel if they have been doing a job well for their entire lives, and then other people, having no idea how to do that job, pass a law telling the professional how to do it. We see this in other fields all the time. Teachers with graduate degrees and decades of experience must prove themselves over and over to parents, administrators, and politicians. That's because they don't have a right to teach; we have a right to learn.

Doctors, specialists in that mysterious universe called "our bodies," must adhere to many standards andgasp!even ask for the consent of the patient before administering treatment. Do they know what's best for us? Maybe. But they don't have a right to heal us; we have a right to receive, participate in, and make decisions about our own health care.

In the same way, I concluded today, there is no right to farm, in Missouri or anywhere else. This amendment is really about the right to farm any way you want, and without regulation. And by the way, you city people don't need to know how it's done.

Maybe instead of arguing over who isn't the boss of us, we farmers should be spending some time and creative energy educating the public, the customers, the eatersthose who are rightly our bossesabout the farming profession. That way we can all make good decisions about how the food is grown, how the farm workers are compensated, how the animals are treated, and how the farmsour farmscan be sustained for generations to come.

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