Oklahoma voters have at least a year before seeing ads for and against state questions on the ballot in November 2016. But you might want to get used to hearing this phrase now: right-to-farm.
It’s a divisive national issue that’s made its way to the Sooner State, one that puts agriculture at odds with environmentalists and animal rights advocates.
In Missouri, it was a fight between two sides that loathe each other. The right-to-farm amendment narrowly passed there in 2014, and not until after a recount. Part of Missouri’s constitution now reads like this: “The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state.”
That sounds innocent, but the language is broad. There is plenty of room for allegations like the one suggested by former Missouri lawmaker Wes Shoemyer.
“There will be challenges of anything you can think of in the court system,” Shoemyer says. “Whether folks in the middle of the cities, say they’ve got a little patch of ground and decide they want to farm. Can they raise hogs and cattle right in their own backyard?”
Now Shoemyer works with the Humane Society of the United States, a main funder of the right-to-farm opposition in Missouri, and enemy of Farm Bureaus across the country who’ve pushed similar amendments in Indiana, North Dakota, and here in Oklahoma.
Next stop, Oklahoma
A bill proposed by Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, would, if passed by voters, change Oklahoma’s constitution to say something very similar to Missouri’s. It adds: “The legislature shall pass no law that abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices without a compelling state interest.”
John Collison with the Oklahoma Farm Bureau questions why the Humane Society is so concerned about agriculture. He says farmers are can be trusted to protect animals and the environment.
“We’re the ones that raise millions and millions of animals every single day, and take care of them,” he says. “They’re our livelihood. We’re not going to treat our business badly.”
But Cynthia Armstrong with the Oklahoma chapter of the Humane Society says many farmers resist animal-related regulations because they’re doing “the bidding of corporate agriculture.”
“They want to do business the way they want to do it, without regard to environmental concerns, animal welfare,” she says. “They don’t want any of that getting in their way.”
Agriculture isn’t all
Humane Society accuses Farm Bureau of being in the pocket of big ag. Farm Bureau, for its part, says it’s obligated to protect farmers from Humane Society-backed anti-GMO laws and chicken-caging regulations, like ones on the books in California and Oregon.
But the right-to-farm fight in Oklahoma is about more than agricultural practices. Rep. Biggs didn’t respond to StateImpact’s interview requests, but said as much when presenting House Joint Resolution 1012 in committee.
“Unfortunately we have an outside who has seen fit to kind of attack agriculture here in Oklahoma, go as far as to sue the attorney general who’s looking to protect us, to stop him from doing some of his actions,” Biggs told the House Rules Committee.
He’s referring to a lawsuit Humane Society filed against Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, accusing him of harassment. Pruitt is investigating the Humane Society over fundraising allegations stemming from the 2013 Moore tornado, an ongoing court battle unrelated to farmers’ rights that seems to have fueled some of the animosity between both sides.
Complicating matters is the fact that Oklahoma already has a right-to-farm law on the books, which outlaws so-called nuisance lawsuits against farmers and ranchers from nearby residents over issues like noise, odors and pollution. All 50 states have some form of right-to-farm law, and the American Legislative Exchange Council — better known as ALEC — has been working to strengthen them.
But statutes are easy to change. The State Constitution isn’t. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, was the only ‘no’ vote on Oklahoma’s right-to-farm amendment proposal when it was heard in committee.
“Forever’s a long time,” Condit says. “Ten, 15 years from now, if we vote this in and the Legislature comes up with a crisis with agriculture, their hands are tied.”
Condit says he’s received hundreds of emails urging him to vote “no.”
“I don’t know if I got any to say vote yes,” he says.
From Farm to Constitution
StateImpact asked a few Oklahoma farmers about what they think of right-to-farm, and couldn’t find any that were even aware of the issue — or the bill.
It’s not clear what a right-to-farm amendment would mean for Oklahoma, but North Dakota in 2012 became the first state to amend its constitution to include one. North Dakota State University Agricultural law professor David Saxowsky says that in the three years since it was added, the right-to-farm amendment has yet to be challenged.
“I don’t think anybody was on the verge of introducing any laws that would be struck down by this amendment,” he says.
Clarification: The audio version of this story says Wes Shoemyer now works for the Humane Society of the U.S. Actually, he serves on HSUS’ Missouri Agriculture Council, an unpaid position. A more correct statement would be that Shoemyer works WITH the Humane Society of the U.S. We apologize for any confusion.