Today's farmers face a multitude of challenges
By William C. Bailey
Some countries don't like the way U.S. farmers operate. For example, both the European Union and China ban a variety of genetically modified crops grown in the U.S. while Russia doesn't like several of the growth promotants some U.S. farmers use in animal feed. As these obstacles appear, U.S. farmers have the choice of modifying their farming practices to meet the requirements of off-shore customers or finding new customers.
Apparently taking their lead from these countries, some states have put into place laws which tell farmers how to do their job, restricting sales of food products that are not raised in the manner determined appropriate by state legislators. Farmers will modify farming operations if consumers really get upset about things. But how much of a farm operation should be determined by state law? California passed a law requiring its egg producers to provide cages that permit chickens to have the full extension of all their limbs. (After dealing with poultry, perhaps the California legislators will attempt to set similar standards for airline passengers.) The original California legislation was followed by another law requiring that all eggs sold in California — regardless of which state they are produced — be raised under the exacting California standards. In response, non-California poultry operators have lawyered up and filed a suit challenging the California law. They don't believe state laws that effectively restrict movement of products around the U.S. are constitutional.
While not yet restricting the flow of products in interstate commerce, several states have laws which put farmers on notice that if they don't follow farming rules set by the legislature, they could go to jail.
For example, Colorado and Arizona have established laws detailing how calves and pigs must be housed, although both provide an exception for rodeos. The Arizona Legislature mandated that any violation of its farming statues constitutes a Class I misdemeanor, putting the infraction in the same category as shoplifting, assaulting a teacher or practicing podiatry without a license.
But the big worry for U.S. farmers is how widely legislation may be enacted that tells farmers how to farm. As the saying goes, nothing is too difficult if you don't have to do it yourself. So non-farming legislators have no hesitation to tell farmers how to do their job. The poultry industry is not too keen for legislators telling them how much room a chicken must have for it to be happy. Nor is the pork industry excited with laws that tell them how to raise pigs — a real concern given the extent of confinement hog operations in the U.S.
As the rural-urban divide grows, the trust between consumers and farmers diminishes. The reality of farming, particularly livestock farming, increasingly collides with the emotional preferences of some consumers. The challenge for American farmers is how to meet the demands of their customers while remaining efficient and profitable. A patchwork of 50 state laws dealing with farming operations written by politicians is not a solution.
William C. Bailey, formerly chief economist for the U.S. Senate agriculture committee and deputy undersecretary of agriculture, is a professor at Western Illinois University.