WARRENSBURG — A bill introduced by Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, would prohibit county commissions and health departments from enacting rules and regulations on agricultural operations that are more stringent than state regulation.

The legislation also would negate existing health ordinances passed by local authorities in the 20 Missouri counties that have enacted such regulations.

The bill was voted “do pass” by the Senate Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources Committee following a hearing March 5 with seven “aye” votes and one “present” vote.

Matt Morris, Bernskoetter’s chief of staff, said two commissioners who voted in favor of the bill indicated they want the bill to be discussed in the full Senate.

Those senators did not return phone calls to the Daily Star-Journal.

The bill is supported by the Missouri Farm Bureau and major agricultural organizations, such as the Missouri Cattlemens Association, Pork Producers, Dairy Association, Poultry Federation, Missouri Soybean and Missouri Corn Growers associations.

At least five of the eight committee members, including Bernskoetter, are listed on their Senate websites as Farm Bureau members and at least three are members of the Missouri Cattlemens Association.

Morris said the bill “will bring county health ordinances in line with state health ordinances.”

The bill was brought to Bernskoetter, he said, by people concerned that non-elected county health boards “are trying to enforce regulations on individuals without being vested with the power to do so.”

He said health boards are authorized by the state “to prevent outbreaks of human diseases,” adding, some boards “are using their power to try to regulate where certain industries and farms might go.”

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, who is vice chairman of the committee and conducted the hearing, is also a Farm Bureau member and a recipient of the Johnson County Farm Bureau’s Friend of Farm Bureau award.

Hoskins said he believes the bill has a chance to pass in the Senate.

He said he voted for the bill because he is “frustrated with the constant attacks on agriculture,” not just in Missouri but nationally, such as the Green New Deal proposed by some congressional Democrats.

“I’m definitely a supporter of agriculture,” he said.

Some counties, Hoskins said, have passed such restrictive regulations that “you can’t farm.”

While the regulations do not affect existing farms, he said, they could limit expansion of those farms.

Too restrictive legislation can drive farms out of business, he said.

Some farmers who testified in support of SB 391 said they did not see any health risks associated with agribusiness and said they want to make agriculture “the No. 1 industry in the state of Missouri,” Hoskins said.

He noted that voters in Johnson County have consistently voted against planning and zoning.

Industrialized agriculture is needed, he said, because small farmers cannot afford the cost of land and equipment and feed.

“You can’t be a small-time farmer and make a living,” Hoskins said. “The size of farms continues to grow” because of that.

Without industrialized agriculture, he said, there will not be enough food to feed the world’s population.

Demand for organic products has been increasing, but Hoskins said organic farms cannot produce the quantity of food needed.

“There can’t be enough food grown with free-range chickens and pigs and not using pesticides,” he said.

In Johnson County, commissioners postponed action on a proposed CAFO ordinance until April 2020, following objections raised by area cattle producers.

The ordinance was proposed by Johnson County Community Health Services Administrator Anthony Arton following Valley Oaks’ application for a permit to operate a Class 1B CAFO that would allow up to 6,999 head of cattle on 400 acres in western Johnson County.

The JCCHS board, an elected board, authorized Arton to pursue the ordinance.

More than 1,400 people filed objections to the CAFO, which they say would create odor and water pollution problems, destroy their quality of life and impact property values.

A news release issued in October stated commissioners “will take up this issue in collaboration with other local stakeholders to develop regulation that benefits our community.”

If SB 391 passes, the issue of a local ordinance becomes moot.

The issue has divided county commissions around the state, Dick Burke, executive director of the Missouri Association of Counties, said.

Commissioners attending the MAC Conference in November passed a resolution opposing legislation that would preempt a county’s authority to deal with local issues and problems.

But Burke said control of agricultural entities “is a divisive issue” in which counties fall into “two very distinct camps.” Some county commissions are very opposed to the bill, he said, and some are content with allowing state statutes to regulate agriculture.

“There will be fierce opposition from some county commissions,” he said. “It’s a very difficult issue.”

Pettis County passed an ordinance regulating CAFOs in 1997, and several other counties have used the Pettis County ordinance as a model in adopting CAFO ordinances.

But Pettis County Presiding Commissioner David Dick indicated the commission’s stance on the ordinance may have changed.

When contacted by the Star-Journal about the possibility that county’s ordinance would be negated, Dick said the ordinance “was not based on science, but location and relevance to other CAFOS and populated areas.”

“The science needs to stay with the DNR. They do water studies and know about everything,” he said.

Decisions, he said, “need to be made by folks who know what’s going on.”

The bill “has a long way to go” through the legislative process, Dick said.

“We have to get through the process and see where the process goes,” he said.

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Columbia, opposes the bill, spokesman Tim Gibbons said.

“It’s not a good bill; it takes away local control,” he said, adding that the bill’s passage would overturn the democratic process. “I hope it does not become law. It will stop counties from protecting themselves in the future and negate what is now in place. The will of the people will be taken away.”

Gibbons said the MRCC, a statewide farm and rural membership organization, has been involved in the debate over the bill.

The MRCC advocates for family farms and independent family farm livestock production, with more than 5,600 member families, according to its website.

At the March 5 hearing, 25 to 30 people from around the state showed up to testify against the bill, Gibbons said.

About an equal number of individuals and representatives from organizations that support the bill also testified in favor of it.

Each speaker was allotted one minute to state their case.

“People opposed to the bill showed up in force,” Gibbons said, adding most were farmers who raise livestock as well as rural residents. “People stood up and spoke the truth. They are real people and farmers and rural residents who are working on stopping what they know is bad and undemocratic legislation.”

Information distributed by the MRCC says a few of the reasons the DNR will not protect the health and welfare of citizens are:

DNR has no authority to provide oversight of the land application of the millions of gallons of waste that comes from “export only” CAFOs. The waste can be applied right up to property lines, homes, water sources and communities.

There are no air quality standards for CAFOs with fewer than 17,500 hogs, 7,000 cattle or 875 broiler chickens.

There are no state setback requirements between CAFOs and populated areas.

CAFOs no longer have to obtain construction permits at all.

CAFOs that are not “export only” can spread waste 50 feet from property lines and homes and 300 feet from water sources.

The bill, Gibbons said, would benefit industrialized agriculture to the detriment of family farms and rural areas.

“Industrialization and vertical integration in the cattle industry are not in the best interest of family farms,” Gibbons said. “We’ve seen what happened to the hog industry with Premium Standard. It put the vast majority of hog producers out of business.”

Cattle production needs to be in the hands of family farmers, Gibbons said.

“Corporate ag says the sky is falling, but historically we’ve shown that not to be true,” Gibbons said.

If the bill passes, he said, local elected officials will not be able to protect constituents from the negative effects of industrialized livestock operations and concentrated animal feeding operations.

The Department of Natural Resources will be the sole regulator of farming enterprises, Gibbons said.

“Another reality that’s sad, but true, is the DNR does not and will not protect us,” he said. “It doesn’t have the capacity or the political will. It’s a hugely politicized department that rubber stamps CAFOS.”

Records show the DNR has never denied a CAFO permit.

Staff Writer Sue Sterling can be reached by emailing sue.sterling@dsjnow.com or by calling (660) 747-8123.

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