July 19, 2001

Area Producers Flock To Governors Agricultural Task Force Meeting

Incentives for beginning farmers and those wanting to add value to their goods. Better access to organic and locally grown foods. Technical and financial support for the state's struggling dairy industry. Programs that encourage cattle owners to finish their livestock in Missouri, rather than shipping them to other states to be fed.

These are just a few of the ideas that cropped up at the first two regional meetings conducted by members of Gov. Bob Holden's "One Missouri, One Agriculture" task force. The task force held public meetings in St. Joseph and Kirksville on July 10 and 11 respectively.

The forums are intended to get recommendations from farmers and others involved in agriculture on how to improve Missouri's agriculture industry.

The St. Joseph meeting drew about 135 people to the Holiday Inn Riverfront. More than 30 people addressed the task force on issues ranging from educating young people about the importance of agriculture to repealing the state's disputed livestock marketing law. A number of speakers encouraged sustainable agriculture practices that would be more environmentally friendly and provide organic products that are high in demand.

In Kirksville, 150 people attended the session, with close to 40 speaking on matters affecting them and their agricultural operations. Some railed against corporate farms and decried the trend toward consolidation in Missouri's agricultural industry. Others gave first-hand accounts of how the large livestock operations had allowed them to stay on the family farm.

Several farmers called for more sensible government regulations for their farm operations, as well as for farm programs.

The testimonials were given to a panel of the industries leaders from across the state including a pair of local producers. Both John Eggleston and Brent Rockhold were on hand for the meeting to take the speakers ideas on to the governor for consideration.

Putnam County farmer Bill Bruce told the committee members that the state needs facilities to slaughter cattle and other livestock.

Missouri has no facility to kill either swine or cattle and yet we are the #2 cattle producer in the United States," Bruce said. "It's pretty sad when you consider that the livestock shown at the Missouri State Fair are killed in Iowa. We need packers plain and simple."

Bruce also discussed the livestock price discrimination law, which has come under fire in recent weeks. He compared the situation to Wall Street where stocks are sold by an open outcry from the buyers allowing all involved to know the prices. He said knowledge of prices being paid is crucial to the sellers.

"The law has its flaws but we cannot scrap the whole thing as this protection is essential," Bruce said.

Cathy Chinn of Shelby County presented the committee with her concerns regarding the Department of Natural Resources and growing regulations.

Chinn told the story of her family farm, which has been a hog producer for 30 years. She stated that the increasing environmental laws that are targeted for large producers are not meeting their goals while at the same time are truly hurting the small family farms.

She stressed that government needs to avoid making knee jerk legislation, which she called emotion based, and instead research the impact the changing environmental laws will have on all involved.

Of interest to the local dairy producers was the testimony given by Kevin Frackenbach of Hannibal. He told the gathering that Missouri is a milk deficit state, meaning that milk is imported from out of state.

He reported that since 1990 Missouri's dairy herd has shrank by 36,000 cows, including 5,000 alone in 2000. He noted that each cow represents more than $8,000 in economic activity, meaning the loss of those cows since 1990 has meant a decline of more than $40 million to the state economy.

Frackenbach noted that while Missouri is witnessing declining milk production, neighboring states like Kansas and Nebraska are growing their herds thanks to state aid in the form of tax abatements and lower utility rates.

"It's not a matter of can the state afford to help increase Missouri's dairy herd, but rather can we afford not to," he said.

Rett Hunziker of Knox County discussed proposed changes in the EPA regulations for run off and total maximum daily loads. He stated the increased regulations will simply be an added burden on the producer and will increase production costs.

He raised a valid point by indicating that farmers are one of the few manufacturers that cannot pass on increases in production costs in the form of higher prices since they do not set the final sale price.

Several speakers hit on the idea of niche marketing and selling locally. Terry Spence of Putnam County talked about the Harmony Beef Products, which sells antibiotic and hormone, free beef to local markets.

Dan Kibbler of Columbia asked for state aid to build a facility for a farmers market in Columbia which would serve 14 counties and do as much as $1 million in business each year. He noted other states like Tennessee and the Carolinas support the farmers markets through the construction of state facilities.

Another idea discussed was a "Food Circle" which is being implemented in Columbia. A neighborhood joins together and agrees buy all products locally. The circle also works to train other buyers such as restaurants and grocery stores of the local products. The idea also could include mandates for publicly funded facilities such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes buy locally raised foods.

Another facet of the presentation included testimony from several young people discussing the plight of agriculture's future in the state.

Justin Kelley, an agriculture student at Truman State University discussed his future plans. He stressed that farming must be able to show young people that they can make a profit or youth will not get involved in the field.

He has come to the realization that he will never be able to go back to the family farm. Instead he has decided to study law in order to make a living so that he can try to break into farming at a later date.

"I hope to be able to work as a lawyer and make enough money to eventually return to farming as a weekend warrior," he said. "That's about the only way young people can go into farming from scratch is as a hobby on the weekends. Besides I am telling everyone in the ag school that I'm taking law courses so that I can go into farming and then handle my own farm's bankruptcy case."

While many of the speakers were talking about the ills of big business and corporate farming, several local producers were on hand to praise the impact of Premium Standard Farms.

Several producers noted that the company has allowed farmers a secure income through the contract raising of hogs. The producer simply provides the land and the building while PSF supplies the hogs as well as a set contract purchase price at the end of the contract.

James Rhodes of Lucerne told the committee how the PSF contracts allowed him a chance to get back into farming. After completing college he knew he could not make a living on the family farm. He reported that only three of his 80 classmates from high school are involved in agriculture and it would only have been two if it were not for PSF.

In all nearly 40 speakers took the microphone and offered their suggestions on how to improve agriculture in Missouri.

"These first two public hearings have given the task force plenty of food for thought and have yielded a number of excellent ideas that have great potential for moving the state's agriculture industry forward," said Lowell Mohler, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture and the task force chairman.

"We are excited about the input we have received and look forward to working with Gov. Holden to develop a blueprint for Missouri agriculture in the 21st century."

Holden created the task force to examine issues facing Missouri farmers and agribusinesses and to look at problems in the industry. The group is made up of 38 people representing farmers, agribusinesses, universities, commodity organizations and the legislature. The task force is divided into subcommittees that will address such issues as marketing, value-added ag, food safety and quality, biotechnology, transportation and the environment.

"While the outcome of these public forums is vital, so is the process," said Larry Harper, a Bates County pecan and walnut grower and task force member. "Anyone who participates in these meetings will leave with a better understanding of what producers are up against, and we will be able to address issues both individually within our organizations and as a task force."

Holden plans to present the task force's findings at the annual Governor's Conference on Agriculture in December. He has said the grassroots information will likely drive state agriculture policy and legislation.

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