Wes Shoemyer, at podium,, former state senator and founder of Missouri's Food for America, talks about the "Farmer's Bill of Rights" as Stephen Webber, Chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, watches. Photo by Trevor McDonald/Courier-Post

We have the right to remain silent.

Most of us usually do until it’s too late.

Everything we say or do can be used against us one way or another—especially when we deal with large multinational corporations, big government, or the World Trade Organization (WTO).

We have the right to have an attorney. But savvy successful attorneys can cost $350 to $500 per hour or more, whereas we farmers work for what amounts to not much more than minimum wage—or less.

That’s why farmers almost never use attorneys except in the case of bankruptcy, or when we have no choice—like when we’re sued by large multinational corporations, big government, or the WTO.

We need help, because what we have now isn’t working—except for large multinational corporations, big government, and the WTO.

See the pattern?

Now, a few groups in Missouri are proposing a few new rules for fair and competitive farm markets, more transparent grower contracts, and an end to predatory practices that have helped decimate family farms and their communities over decades.

Steven Webber, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, has been traveling across the state to announce the “Family Farmers Bill of Rights,” an initiative intended to empower and reverse the decline of rural Missouri. Other Missouri farm organizations involved are Missouri Farmers Union (to which I belong), Missouri’s Food for America, and Family Farm Action.

I know what you’re thinking. A party chairman. Politics.

But the Greek definition of politics is the process of making decisions applying to members of a group. In this case the group is an underserved victimized segment of agriculture called family farms.

If Democrats are able to make political hay while improving rural lives, would that be so bad?

Immediate actions called for are:

  • Helping to expand rural small businesses including family farms,
  • Reinstating country of origin labeling (COOL) for US born, raised, and slaughtered beef and pork,
  • Reserving rural communities’ rights to local control,
  • Rolling back recently enacted legislation allowing expanded foreign ownership of Missouri farmland, (China owns Missouri’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, and Brazilian based JBS is among the largest beef processors)
  • Restoration of fair and equal rural representation on the Missouri Clean Water Commission,
  • And fair practice rules for farmers who contract to raise livestock and poultry on behalf of packer/integrators.

Currently, Country of Origin labeling for U.S. beef is illegal under WTO rules agreed to by our government. Missouri is the second largest cow/calf beef producer in the U.S.

The Missouri General Assembly has liberalized laws prohibiting foreign ownership of Missouri land and has made it more difficult for rural counties to control their communities’ quality of life with health ordinances and zoning.

Recent appointments made by Missouri Governor Eric Greitens have resulted in corporate control over the Clean Water Commission.

And family farmers who raise poultry and hogs under contract for large meat packers are forced to accept mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure agreements for contract disputes, which leaves farmers with no guarantee for fair resolution of disputes because regardless what happens, they can’t talk about it.

Speaking to a group in St Joseph, Missouri, a few weeks ago, Webber said, “As we lose family farms, we lose local businesses, we lose schools and then, ultimately, we start losing people.” He said the Family Farmers Bill of Rights is intended to help family farmers and rural communities and also to acquaint Missouri’s general population with the problems our shrinking rural communities face.

Steven said a mouthful, not only about farms but about food production and the right of consumers to know what they’re putting into their mouths in the first place.

That’s the message he’s carrying around the state ahead of next year’s mid-term elections.

To outsiders, rural and farm may look like the same things. Same-old same-old, we used to say. But today’s same-old gives us fewer choices every year. Fewer markets for what we grow, fewer choices for where we can sell. Fewer choices for patented seeds and pesticides. And fewer choices for machinery operating systems we’re forced to buy at non-competitive prices because lack of competition or interpretation of agricultural copyright and patent law has limited choices and farmers ability to adapt.

Growing organic is promoted as the cure for small farms. But the transition to organic is costly, and with Trump administration efforts aimed at weakening organic standards, that investment in time and money spent converting farms and fields to healthy new standard could be met with a return of less than zero. But for corporations across Missouri and the U.S. whose taxes were reduced 14% by Congress and the Trump administration, the message is clear; Money. Money. Money.

Big corporations continually work to weaken and adapt organic rules to their liking.

For farmers it is the same uphill battle it’s always been. That’s because the playing field is not level. It tilts toward corporate goals. That’s why, before it’s too late, consumers and farmers alike need a new Family Farmers Bill of Rights.

Richard Oswald, a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union, lives in Langdon, Missouri.

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