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Published March 14, 2011, 12:20 PM

Lawmakers play dirty with family farms

ST. LOUIS — Protectors of property rights in Missouri take notice: State lawmakers have embarked on an unprecedented expansion of government power to intrude on private-property rights.

ST. LOUIS — Protectors of property rights in Missouri take notice: State lawmakers have embarked on an unprecedented expansion of government power to intrude on private-property rights.

Think of it as eminent domain abuse’s country cousin.

Corporate agriculture has moved into Missouri in a big way. Multinational firms backed by Wall Street investors have displaced family farmers with dozens of mammoth livestock operations. They are called concentrated animal-feeding operations.

Just one 4,300-acre, 80-barn facility in Gentry County in northwest Missouri, operated by a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, processes as many as 200,000 hogs per year.

Big ag backer

Legislation now racing through the Missouri Legislature — House Bill 209 and Senate Bill 187 — puts government behind big agriculture at the expense of neighboring property owners. Legislators want to strip family farms of one of the most precious aspects of property ownership: the right to avoid neighbors inflicting a nuisance on them without just compensation.

The rap against factory farms — even in rural communities — is how they handle the immense amounts of animal waste. Millions of gallons of hog feces and urine are collected in open-air cesspools that can be 20 feet deep and can cover acres.

The waste can pose major risks to water supplies. It also can produce a fetid stench that carries over long distances and across property boundaries.

Long-established state law says that landowners oppressed by nuisance conditions on a neighboring property are entitled to recover the loss in rental value of the property.

If, for example, a family farm ordinarily could fetch a rental price of $2,000 a month, but the stench of hog waste wafting from the neighbor’s farm reduces that value to $500 a month, the owner’s damages would be $1,500 a month. If the nuisance continues for five years, the damages would be $90,000.

Under Missouri law, a landowner can file a nuisance lawsuit, with a jury deciding whether the factory farm is unreasonably interfering with its neighbors’ use of their properties.

Pulling penalties

Corporate farmers have tired of farm families in Missouri sitting in judgment of their operations. Their factory farms have been tagged with a couple of multimillion-dollar verdicts. So they enlisted Missouri lawmakers to rig the system in their favor.

The pending legislation would radically alter the measure of damages. It would remove any long-term financial penalty to factory farms that refuse to abate a nuisance.

The new system would operate much like eminent domain. But instead of property owners being forced to sell against their will for a “fair value,” they would have to give up what people treasure most in their homes — the right to be left alone and the freedom from unreasonable interference from neighbors.

Family farmers would get a one-time payment in exchange for giving up, in perpetuity, the right to complain about the nuisance next door.

The owner of a family farm ordinarily worth $200,000, but worth only $125,000 when located next to a CAFO operation, could have the stench-free enjoyment of his or her property taken away in exchange for a one-time payment of $75,000.

And he or she would have to hire and pay a lawyer to get it.

That’s not Missouri farm culture. That’s corporate greed aided by pliant politicians.

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