Coming to us now—in what seems like another float in the annual parade of perplexing, often unconstitutional proposed amendments to the Oklahoma Constitution—State Question 777, also known as the Right to Farm Bill. If approved by voters in November, it will fundamentally change the scope of state regulations on farming practices … by removing them.
Here's the money shot.
It prohibits the Legislature from passing laws that would take away the right to employ agricultural technology and livestock production without a compelling state interest.
Let us now all take a moment to ask, "The hell?"
You could drive a John Deere H-Series Frontloader through that word compelling, which is problem one. Not only is it vague, its vagueness will not be decided by the legislature, where it should be , but by the courts. Problem two, more astonishingly, is that state legislators actually want the amendment.
For the love of mercury, livestock hormones, and pesticide runoff, this is some Grade-A self-neutering to give up the right to regulate an industry that has been known to play hinky in Oklahoma with the use of arsenic in feed and the dumping of chicken litter.
If state government can’t—or won’t—regulate what happens in the state, then what happens can get pretty ugly. More to the point, what’s the point of even having state government?
The Oklahoma Stewardship Council (more on the group in a minute) explains how horrendous this bill is.
It further charges that the state question is "so poorly worded and sweeping in scope that it may give legal immunity to inhumane puppy mill operators, cockfighters and industrial agriculture polluters."
Cockfighting, puppy mills, agricultural pollution? Lovely.
Still, proponents of SQ 777 say the new measure will protect the family farmer, that amalgam of cliché and folklore, the grizzled, overall-wearing, historically-iconic patriarchal metaphor, and that opponents are overstating the bill's reach.4
"The pure intent of this bill is to protect farming and ranching in Oklahoma for our future generations," Biggs said. "You know this is about, in November 2016 - a chance for Oklahomans to help Oklahomans ensure we have an adequate supply of safe and affordable food in Oklahoma."
That’s Scott Biggs, District 51 State Representative, who co-authored the original legislation and is carrying so much water for corporate agribusiness on it now, it's surprising he doesn't trip over the pails.
Right to farm amendments are but the latest and boldest tactics of corporate, industrial agriculture to protect itself from growing public concerns about the overall integrity of the American food system. Previous tactics include Right to Farm laws of 1970s and 1980s, veggie libel laws of the 1990s, and ag-gag laws of the 2000s.
Like most states, Oklahoma already has a law protecting farmers—HJR 1012—that was passed overwhelmingly and was designed to protect them from things like nuisance lawsuits, sales tax exemptions, and prohibiting local municipalities from passing onerous laws not required by the state. It’s not a great bill—not awful—but certainly one that didn’t need enshrinement in the state constitution.
So why is it being pushed?
Welcome to Oklahoma.
That HJR 1012 is statutory and SQ 777 constitutional is key to understanding the dynamic. Laws can be changed fairly easily when conditions necessitate; constitutional amendments not so much. Which is the point for people like Biggs—he’ll tell you himself in a moment—for if you succeed in amending the state constitution, you make it almost impossible to change public policy should wiser souls someday sit in your seat at the state capitol—oh, stop laughing—and decide Oklahoma faces a new set of agricultural issues that need to be addressed or just think it’s a good idea that the needs of the state not be subordinate to the profits of Tyson and ADM.
"If you put it in the Constitution it makes it more permanent," Biggs said. "The Constitution then trumps future statutes, it's just a better way to safe guard and ensure farming and ranching is protected."
That’s one way of looking at it—the wrong way—according to Drew Edmondson, former Oklahoma attorney general, who now heads the aforementioned Oklahoma Stewardship Council.7
"It places in the Oklahoma Bill of Rights the right to farm as a protected industry," Edmondson said. "No other industry in Oklahoma—not oil and gas, not banking, not legal—nobody has that kind of protection."
Shhh, don't give them any ideas.
The problem, says Edmondson, is once you put it in the constitution, legislators, city councils, and state agencies become powerless and only a vote of people can change the scope of the amendment, which may sound like a good idea until it’s not. For instance, the agricultural industry used to lace chicken feed with arsenic, which most decided was a bad idea—in fact, Tyson stopped doing so. But, say, it decided to start doing so again, citing its own studies which prove a certain amount of arsenic is now safe (and what could go wrong there?). The state legislature couldn’t just pass new legislation outlawing the practice, it would be forced to take Tyson to court and then try to persuade a judge it was in the state’s compelling interest to stop it—either that, or legislators could write a new amendment, wait for the next election cycle, and put it to a statewide vote.
"In the meantime," Edmondson tells me, "this gives agriculture the same right as your right to vote, your right to go to church, your freedom of press."
Which is to say nothing of the arsenic in your egg salad.
Edmondson then asks the central question: "Why are we picking out this particular industry, anyway, for special consideration? It’s two percent of our gross domestic product."
Simple answer: because The Oklahoma Farm Bureau, which favors the amendment and does the bidding of large agribusiness with enormously large pockets, is politically active in every district and is a major contributor to state legislators.
"They dress it in language," Edmondson says, "like ‘Right to Farm.’ They don’t say "Massive Farm Operation Protection Act,’ which it is."
Not to beat a dead horse on this, but as long as Oklahoma remains in the United States (Okexit anyone?), it will still be subject to federal guidelines and national environmental regulations. So, even if SQ 777 is approved, farmers and ranchers in this state will still be subject to the rules—okay, whims, if you insist—of Washington bureaucrats who may find some of the state’s agricultural practices troublesome.
"It would be an invitation for the federal government to come in," Edmondson says.
Isn’t it ironic, I ask Edmondson, that the same legislators who complain about federal interference on state matters every hour on the half hour are now supporting giving the feds more opportunity to interfere?
"Why a legislator would want to tie its own hands to do what’s right for the people of Oklahoma is the height of ironies. Never before have we said ‘Hands off.’ But I don’t think they get irony."
Not often in Oklahoma (and by that I mean not since last week) has an amendment been so poorly written that it hits the trifecta: dangerous, vague, and in perpetuity.
This, too: The number of family farms in Oklahoma over the past decade or so has declined by about 70 percent, and it’s not because of environmental legislation—it’s because, according to Edmondson, small farmers are being driven out of business by massive multi-national operations.
One final thing.
SQ 777, which is supported and written by Attorney General Scott Pruitt—actually it was re-typed by Pruitt—is the work of our old friends at the American Legislative Council (ALEC), which provided the template for the original statute, HRC 1012, as it has for much of the Right to Farm legislation across the country.
For a modest membership fee, conservative legislators gain access to the group’s resources. Think of ALEC’s prepackaged and pre-lawyered legislation as Swanson TV dinners: all you need is a majority vote to reheat it, and it’s ready to serve. The result: similarly flavored bills in statehouses across the country.
And ALEC’s bill wasn’t even the worst of it.
ALEC just wrote the statute," Edmondson reminds us. "That’s as far as it went. Our legislators in Oklahoma wrote the state question. ALEC is actually saner on this than the Oklahoma Farm Bureau."
And that, Future Farmers of America, is saying something.
When it comes to Oklahoma legislation and legislators, especially when the latter keeps insisting the former is the best thing for the working man and woman, keep your eye on the company, companies, and associations it and they keep … and, of course, watch the money flow.
The friend of my enemy is often a lobbyist. And he’s rarely wearing overalls.
For more from Barry, read his article on the state we're in.