Photo from usdagov on Flickr.
Oklahomans vote November 8 on a Big Ag-backed proposal to limit the ability of citizens to regulate agricultural activity within the state. If passed, State Question 777 would add language to the state constitution requiring any new agricultural legislation to undergo strict scrutiny in the courts, making it harder for residents to improve environmental, animal welfare, and water standards in the state.
Backers of the proposal have framed the vote as being about the “right to farm.” All 50 states currently have some kind of right to farm legislation. Broadly, right to farm legislation was originally designed to shield independent farmers from “nuisance lawsuits,” such as a neighbor suing a hog farmer for unpleasant smells. Right to farm legislation protects farmers in the normal course of agricultural production, so long as there is no evidence of negligence.
But pro-Big Ag farming groups have in recent years begun to use the “right to farm” concept as a tool to make it more difficult for citizens to fight corporate and foreign control of farmland and the use of giant livestock facilities, in which thousands of animals are housed a single small plot of land. In 2014, Missouri passed its own version of a right to farm constitutional amendment after a protracted battle among farm and environmental groups. North Dakota passed right to farm legislation in 2012.
In both states, the amendments were pushed by local Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association chapters, organizations that represent large meatpackers and processors.
Advocates for independent farmers worry that SQ777 will result in unchecked growth of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – widely blamed for water and air pollution – and more market power for corporate growers such as Tyson and Smithfield. SQ777 would “give the [agriculture] industry constitutional protections that no other industries have,” says Johnson Bridgwater, the head of the Oklahoma Sierra Club chapter.
Such protections would mainly serve the interests of large-scale, corporate producers in the state, who are seeking to avoid further environmental regulation, advocates say. “Any [farmer] that’s doing direct sales, anyone that sells to restaurants, all those guys are opposed to ,” says Bud Scott, an organizer with Oklahomans for Food, Farm, and Family, which opposes SQ777. “The ones supporting it are the big boys.”
The coalition supporting SQ777 includes the Oklahoma Farmers Bureau, Oklahoma Pork Council, and Oklahoma Cattlemen’s association. Groups working to fight SQ777 include the local chapters of the Sierra Club and the Humane Society of the United States, as well as the Cherokee Nation and farmer groups such as the Organization of Competitive Markets.
So far, the coalition in favor of SQ777 has raised more than $800,000, while opponents of the measure have raised only $240,000. The Oklahoma Farm Bureau has contributed over $70,000 to Oklahoma Farmers Care SQ 777, the yes-vote PAC. The Oklahoma Pork Council has donated over $192,000. The Oklahoma Pork Council is funded by the national pork checkoff, a tax on pork producers whose funds are nominally used for promotion and marketing of pork.
Advocates warn that a victory by Big Ag would likely result in similar legislation in other corporate sectors. Bridgwater, for instance, worries such a precedent would “[open] a floodgate” to constitutional exemptions for other industries, like oil or gas.
Agriculture comprises about 2% of Oklahoma’s economy. Around 94% of all farms in the state are small farms, according to the Department of Agriculture.
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