Large agricultural corporations influence all stripes of Missouri politicians, including the Republicans who control the Missouri General Assembly.
A new nonprofit organization is seeking to change that, pushing back against Big Ag’s money and lobbyists. But it’s a tall order, especially when multibillion-dollar companies like Monsanto and Smithfield donate hefty sums to rural Democrats’ and Republicans’ campaigns.
Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell is heading up the Missouri-based nonprofit Farm Family Action, which opposes, among other things, the proposed merger between seed-and-pesticide giants Monsanto and Bayer.
The nonprofit also supports placing country of origin labels on food and wants stricter regulations on confined animal feeding operations, which house hundreds, if not thousands, of livestock.
“The foundation of the organization is about breaking the stranglehold that monopolies have on the market that drive these bad outcomes, these bad abuses to the land, to farmer, to the animal, to the rural communities and to the consumer,” said Maxwell, who wants to eventually try to influence policy in other states.
The group could be a formidable alternative to organizations like the Missouri Farm Bureau, Putnam County cattle farmer Terry Spencer said. But Spencer, who has advocated against large livestock operations for decades, recognizes the challenge ahead.
“It’s going to be very difficult. Because there is major money within these corporations,” said Spence, who owns a farm that’s close to a large Smithfield hog facility. “It’s going to be hard to challenge them, because they pretty much dictate the agenda for our state legislature. And they pretty much dictate to our Congress on the power that they have.”
Too little, too late?
Republican Rep. Joe Don McGaugh of Carrollton said it’s unrealistic to expect larger farming operations to completely disappear in Missouri.
“That message that (Maxwell) is driving, about bringing back the family farm and some of those things, that’s probably the issue that resonates the most,” he said. “They want everyone to have 10 cows and 15 hogs. We’ve gone away from that. We’ll probably never go back to that type of society. So I just think the message is old and stale on their part.”
Large agricultural companies are also trying to change how they’re perceived by some farmers and the public at large. One example is Smithfield teaming up with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce water pollution and emissions at its facilities.
“We’re very proud of our record. We’re very proud of what we do and what we stand for,” said Kraig Westerbeek, who is in charge of environmental engineering for Smithfield’s hog operations. “What we have to do is make sure we’re progressive, that we listen to our customers and listen to stakeholders. And we do business responsibly.”
Suzy Friedman of the Environmental Defense Fund said there are good reasons for large agricultural companies to adopt environmentally friendly practices — including improving their reputations.
“More and more people are able to access information, are asking questions and want to know ‘where’s my food coming from, how is it produced?’ Is this company working as a good corporate steward of our resources and of their labor force,” she said.
McGaugh also points to Maxwell’s former employment with the Humane Society of the United States, which helped fund a Missouri ballot initiative in 2010 imposing stricter regulations on dog breeding facilities. It narrowly passed statewide, though most rural counties overwhelmingly opposed it.
Family Farm Action is a 501(c)(4), which means it can accept unlimited donations in its quest to lobby legislatures or support political candidates.
But it’ll go up against companies like Monsanto and Smithfield Foods, both of which donated close to $125,000 to Democratic and Republican candidates and political party committees in 2016. For example, Smithfield, which operates facilities across the state, gave $50,000 to Gov. Eric Greitens and $20,000 to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Koster, who was endorsed by the Missouri Farm Bureau.
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