A Thomas Hart Benton mural adorns the Missouri state capitol.
Photo: fpba.wayne

The right to petition our representatives in government is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, and even in the Magna Carta.

Here around Langdon, few of us have read the Magna Carta, but we’re pretty familiar with the Declaration of Independence. That’s not to say we always take full notice of everything written on that historic, yellowed page.

A few years back, I had a call from some fellow Missourians asking if I’d like to testify before a committee in the Missouri House of Representatives. Ever since genetically modified crops were first patented, farmers have not been allowed to do what generations before them had done, namely to save part of each years soybean crop for planting in the following spring. My friends were trying to reclaim the right to grow and save their own seeds.

So I said, “Why not?” Even though I’d never met most of the people I was planning to join in Jefferson City, I believed, as they did, that farmers’ rights should be protected. That early spring day nearly seven years ago was the first time I’d ever been to the Missouri state capitol.

It takes four and a half hours to get to Jefferson City from Langdon. If not for Eisenhower’s dream of connecting our nation through a network of interstate highways, it would take longer. As it is, I simply drive two miles to I-29. From there on it’s two lanes of concrete all the way to the front door of the capitol. If not for Missouri’s finest, the State Highway Patrol, and the 70 mile per hour speed limit, I could probably get there faster.

So I did like Bob Barker always said and “came on down.” I said my piece before the committee, and after due deliberations they decided we’d just have to keep on buying our seed.

That’s when I learned that the right to petition does not always guarantee positive results.

That first lobbying experience led me to become a member of Missouri Farmers Union. Though Lobby Days in Jefferson City have been few and far between for me since then, I did take the opportunity to do the same thing many times with National Farmers Union in our nation’s capitol of Washington DC. Ironically, it takes about as long to get to Washington from Langdon as it does to get to Jefferson City.

A few weeks ago I got an email that the MFU was planning a Lobby Day. They were asking some of us to “come on down” to Jefferson City to help hand out food baskets filled with Missouri produce, and to petition our representatives in state government.

Constitutionally speaking, it seemed like the right thing to do.

For us in Missouri as well as all Americans, the right to self-government is an incredible gift, given to us through the pain and sacrifice of others. Using their lives as collateral, American patriots took out a loan for freedom. Some survived to enjoy the fruits of their investment, others did not. As Jefferson once put it, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Each year that investment of life comes due again, all across America. The only way to renew it and pay the interest due is through participation in our Democratic form of government.

By thinking of it that way, a nine hour round trip seems a small price to pay.

It’s hard to get a large group together sometimes, partly because of the cost of travel, as well as the fact that people are busy working for a living and answering the demands of their daily lives. Lobbying requires a great deal of walking. In Jefferson City, most of the available free parking is situated at the foot of the hill northwest of the capitol. It’s a long walk, uphill all the way. Inside the capitol itself are tall staircases and long hallways for even more walking.

Dogwoods were blooming on the long hike up to the capitol in Jeff City.
Photo: Richard Oswald

During a meeting on my first trip to Washington, one lady stood up and said, “Tomorrow is going to be a long day, some of you cowboys might want to leave those pointy toed boots at home!”

Good shoes are a lobbyist’s best friend.

Once we get past the obvious lobbying negatives of expense, time, and fatigue, there are advantages. For one thing, Missouri has a beautiful state capitol. Situated on the banks of the Missouri River, the capitol dome is topped by a statue of Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture and motherly love. Facing to the southwest of the capitol just off High Street, stands a statue of Thomas Jefferson. During his service to our fledgling nation, Jefferson is known to have longed for his home, Monticello, and life on the farm he loved. The symbolism of agriculture in our home state is obvious and undeniable.

Early on the morning of the 16th, MFU support staff distributed gift baskets of Missouri grown produce to all the members of the General Assembly as well as other key state officials, from the Governor on down. Then MFU members and volunteers visited Representatives and Senators in their offices, in the hallways, in the rotunda, or wherever they could catch up to them regarding our gift of food, as well as our political goals. Like farmers everywhere, we feel most valued when we are doing our primary job: feeding hungry people.

MFU leaders chose to contact legislators regarding four bills, all of which pertain to agriculture. The first two dealt with artificial hormone use and the way milk is labeled. Passage of either one would mean that dairy producers who choose not to use artificial hormones to increase milk production would lose the right to label their milk as such. MFU opposes the passage of HB 2283 and SB 1279 which could force all milk to be labeled as natural regardless of how it is produced.

The third bill, SB 931, would limit Missouri’s participation in mandatory NAIS, the national animal ID program. (See Yonder stories on NAIS here and here.) MFU favors voluntary animal ID only. MFU supports the passage of SB 931 so that Missouri livestock producers can maintain their right to privacy.

The fourth and final bill we addressed was Senator Wes Shoemeyer’s SB 847. Shoemeyer’s bill would allow farmers to grow and save seed for use on their own farms, even if the seed contains patented genes. In that case, as provided for in the bill, the state would collect patent fees from farmers and pass them along to the company holding the patent. SB 847 would shield Missouri farmers from patent liability while guaranteeing that lawful patent holders would be paid their due. MFU supports SB 847, which would return the farmer’s right to farm-raised seed. Come to think of it, that’s the same idea we promoted on my first trip to Jefferson City.

MFU lobbyists also asked that the Missouri Department of Agriculture increase funding for promotion of farmers markets and agri-tourism. The state currently has a combined total of $4,000 appropriated for both, a small amount indeed for any state watched over by the likes of Ceres and Jefferson. The Farmers Union respectfully requested that a reasonable amount be dedicated to one of Missouri’s most important industries.

In the words of Jefferson, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.”

In Jefferson City on April 16th, some Missouri farmers took freedom to the bank.

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