By: Sarah Molina
State Capital Bureau
JEFFERSON CITY - An issue that has split Missouri's agriculture community is among the three issues before the state General Assembly's special session that begins Wednesday.
At issue is a 1999 law that restricts discrimination in the prices meat packers for livestock. The law also called for packers to report how much they pay for livestock.
The goal was to assure that small producers and family farmers got the same price for their cattle as the larger operations.
Some Missouri agricultural interests say that law has caused meat packers to stop buying Missouri beef and, thus, threaten the price Missouri farmers can get for their cattle.
Sen. John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, was at the forefront of the development of the consensus to change the law, sending a written request to the governor along with 18 signatures from members of the Missouri Senate.
"We hope to add federal language into the state statute and do away with discriminatory language," Cauthorn said. "[The changes] will also allow us to look into complaints and forward them to the director of agriculture."
Although passed in 1999, the law did not become an issue until this year because in August 1999, a federal judge blocked implementation of the law.
In May of this year, a federal appeals court overturned the lower court decision and allowed the law to take effect.
While the Missouri Farm Bureau has called for repeal and the governor agreed to include it before the special session, not all in rural Missouri agree.
In a statement released Thursday, Missouri's Speaker of the House, Jim Kreider, expressed his support of the 1999 law because of the protection it provides smaller state farmers from unfair competition with larger organizations.
"From personal observation I know that the large meat packers favor the large volume producer over the family farmer, and that is a practice we cannot and will not tolerate," Speaker Kreider said.
Cauthorn, however, cited several problems with the current law, including attempts to regulate packers outside the state of Missouri and room for lawsuits due to trivial reasons.
"The issue is simple," he said. "Can you tell someone outside of your state what to do? Government regulation has hurt small producers. We wish the house would honor what we're trying to do."
The state of Missouri supplies much of the nation's beef; only Texas produces more. Because the majority of this production is from small companies, the legislation affects much of the state's beef production and the nation's supply.
In contrast to the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Farmer's Union claims the law has been a positive asset to Missouri's livestock market and has helped many area farmers.
"It has leveled the playing field for small companies competing with larger organizations," Russ Kremer, director of the Missouri Farmer's Union commented. "Our mission is to save the integrity of the law. Current proposals will take way too much out of [it]."
On the other side, Tom Crawford, assistant director of local government affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, said the group is pushing for repeal of the law to restore marketing opportunities for small farmers.
"[The legislation] has made [beef] purchases more risky," Crawford said. "[With changes] we hope small farmers will have more options than before the law went into effect."
Due to the new regulations and high penalty costs for violation of the act, several buyers to whom small Missouri farmers sell their products have threatened to boycott Missouri's livestock and some have even taken measures to terminate relations in the Missouri market.
Iowa Beef Packers (IBP), for example, the world's largest producer of fresh beef and pork, has pulled out of the Missouri livestock market since the implementation of the law in May.
"Considering that agriculture is Missouri's leading industry and critical to the maintenance and growth of our economy, it is important for us to understand the situation thoroughly," Speaker Kreider said in the Thursday press release. "By gathering information from consumers, livestock producers and experts in the agriculture industry, we hope to find a reasonable solution."
The issue is scheduled to be addressed by the Missouri legislature's special session in early September.