Individual state constitutions across the nation spell out a host of guaranteed rights for their citizens. For example, same sex marriage or collective bargaining. But what about the right to farm? From the WUIS Harvest Desk, Bill Wheelhouse reports on a drive to establish that guarantee:
Some farmers are feeling a bit defensive – or put-upon — these days. Take the recent experiences of Bob Young, for instance:
The 69 year old raises 36-hundred hogs on the land where he grew up near Rochester in central Illinois. When he was getting ready to build the hog confinement facility seven years ago… some area residents – concerned about the potential smell of the place — filed suit. A court order stopped construction for 18 months.
YOUNG “A couple years there- our house was in foreclosure about every month. I couldn’t make the house payment and keep up with everything else.”
While that lawsuit ultimately fizzled, skirmishes like this are coming up with regularity across the country. And that’s got agribusiness groups moving from defense to offense. The latest tactic involves passing constitutional amendments in individual states that would secure a “right to farm”.
KLEINSORGE “We’ve noticed an uptick in attacks on agriculture both culturally and politically.”
Dan Kleinsorge leads an organization called Missouri Farmers Care… it’s a mix of 40 groups including the Farm Bureau and Monsanto. They’ve SUCCESSFULLY lobbied to get state lawmakers in Missouri to put an amendment on the ballot in 2014.
KLEINSORGE “The highest law in the state is the state constitution, so what we are really looking for is a right in that state constitution to protect farming.”
Kleinsorge says it’s about more than lawsuits. He points to quote “attacks” by animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States to put more regulations on livestock farming. Also of concern: Opponents of genetically modified foods are making inroads with state laws state ballot initiatives that would require the labeling of food.
KLEINSORGE “We want people to understand that this is something where agriculture feels has been targeted by special interest groups that have a great deal of money.”
Right to Farm might seem like a strange notion… after all we don’t see banks or big box stores getting such protections. And there are ALREADY laws on the books in all 50 states to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits.
Farm groups, however, say most people are now at least two generations removed from farm life. And they don’t always realize food production has changed or that the farming way of life they knew even a short time ago is dramatically different. They say that makes the public more willing to regulate farming.
But the Humane Society sees it another way.
MAXWELL “There’s this trend because industrialized ag often times supported by the Farm Bureau is really pushing to be able to not have to have any restrictions– Environmental restrictions or any restrictions on how animals are raised or how farmers are treated.”
That’s Joe Maxwell, a vice president with the Humane Society. Maxwell… a farmer himself and a former Missouri Lt. Governor … says constitutional protection would allow farmers to escape regulation.
MAXWELL “They want to freewheel out there be able to do whatever they want or abuse whatever they want.”
North Dakota voters approved the first “right to farm constitutional amendment” in the nation last fall. And right behind the ballot initiative in Missouri — Indiana and Iowa look to be next in line.
The amendments differ a bit in their wording but the general thrust is that the right to engage in farming practices shall not be infringed. University of Missouri Political Scientist Peverill Squire is an expert on state constitutions. He says there is still a question of what that means:
SQUIRE “It could be essentially meaningless. That is, be more a symbolic gesture than a sort of binding constitutional principal. There’s nothing in the relatively few words that are being proposed that would give much guidance to legal authorities as they try to sort out all of this.”
In Illinois, there is currently no drive for a “right to farm” amendment to the state constitution, however Bob Young back on his farm says he could support the idea. Allen though suggests that maybe people shouldn’t be so quick to move out of town into the idyllic countryside:
YOUNG “As far as the city people moving out, most of them are fine .But there are a few that come out here. And think we got to change everything so we can make it city living, and that won’t work.”
In North Dakota the amendment easily passed, and little money was spent on the campaign. The battle in Missouri may be more expensive. The last time farm groups and the Humane Society squared off in that state they had a combined war-chest of ten million dollars.
— Bill Wheelhouse, Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media is a collaboration of WUIS and midwest stations focusing on farm and food.