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ND farmers push for constitutional right to farm

Doyle Johannes has worked land near the Missouri River in central North Dakota for 35 years, raising everything from corn to cattle. He's not about to let someone from outside the state's borders tell him how to go about his business.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Doyle Johannes has worked land near the Missouri River in central North Dakota for 35 years, raising everything from corn to cattle. He's not about to let someone from outside the state's borders tell him how to go about his business.

Johannes and other farmers took notice last year when The Humane Society of the United States pushed a ballot proposal to abolish fenced hunting preserves. They've also followed efforts to pass animal welfare laws in other states, and they don't want any unreasonable rules in North Dakota.

Johannes, who farms with family members near Underwood, is one of the backers of an effort to enshrine the right to farm and ranch in the constitution of the state that leads the nation in the production of a dozen crops — from wheat and barley to navy beans and honey. Officials say if North Dakota farmers succeed, it could prompt similar actions in other states.

"It doesn't allow someone from the East Coast, the West Coast, to come in here and tell you what you can and can't do because of their idealistic notions," Johannes said of a proposed measure the North Dakota Farm Bureau is trying to bring before voters next year. "We want to be able to farm in North Dakota, the way we think we should be able to."

The proposal would add to the state constitution: "The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state. No law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices."

Many North Dakota residents consider activities such as farming and hunting — centerpieces of society in the rural state — to be basic rights and distrust outside groups they think might infringe on them.

But others say farmers and ranchers shouldn't have unlimited control over their operations, and some say the proposal's broad wording might actually hurt farmers by taking away their ability to protect their own property against everything from a neighbor's livestock odor to the unwanted spread of genetically engineered crops.

The farm bureau needs to collect just under 27,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot in June or November 2012. That's likely — the organization has that many members. And in North Dakota, where agriculture generates one-fourth of the money in the state economy, many people who don't work the land still rely on the industry for their livelihoods. Voters in 2000 overwhelmingly approved adding the right to hunt, fish and trap to the state constitution.

North Dakota Farm Bureau President Eric Aasmundstad said the goal is to protect the future of the state's agriculture industry before groups such as The Humane Society push through stricter farm animal welfare rules and other measures. Farmers say rules that increase their costs also push up the price of food in grocery stores.

"It's important to the future of farming and ranching, and to consumers," said Aasmundstad, who grows grain near Devils Lake. "Those moms that go buy groceries for their kids every week, they need this industry to be vibrant."

But Joe Maxwell, a Missouri hog farmer and former lieutenant governor who serves as director of rural development and outreach for The Humane Society, said the agriculture industry also needs to be humane to animals and fair to other property owners. For example, one farmer's right to build a large, noisy, smelly feedlot for pigs could infringe on neighbors' rights to enjoy their properties, he said.

"Their language should be more narrowly defined," he said of the Farm Bureau proposal. "Placing something in the constitution of any state has serious ramifications."

Maxwell said the Humane Society likes to work with farmers to find solutions. For example, Ohio implemented sweeping standards for the handling of livestock last month. The requirements are the result of a 2009 constitutional amendment requiring the establishment of livestock care standards and a deal then-Gov. Ted Strickland brokered last year between agriculture groups and The Humane Society.

"We collectively came to the conclusion that it was in the best interest of farmers, livestock producers, all Ohioans to see if we could pursue some middle ground," said Jack Fisher, executive director of the Ohio Farm Bureau. "We put together a process that would serve everybody's interests."

But supporters of the North Dakota proposal point to other states where The Humane Society successfully advocated animal welfare reform efforts unpopular with many farmers, such as in California. Voters in that state in 2008 approved a measure that bans cramped cages for laying hens by 2015.

Steve Finsaas, a North Dakota Farm Bureau employee who lives in South Heart, said the measure hurt his in-laws' California egg business, which he and his wife had hoped to join.

"For my inlaws to upgrade (cages for) their 4 million hens would cost $120 million," he said. "My father-in-law has told us, 'There is no opportunity for you in this industry unless there is major change.'

"That's why it's personal for me," Finsaas said. "This is our way of trying to protect the agricultural industry here in North Dakota ... and not be dictated to by an outside group."

Some groups say the proposed North Dakota amendment also could hamper efforts to regulate genetically engineered crops amid concerns about the environment and food safety.

"I think it ties the hands of the entire state government to deal with something in the future that's a problem, just because it's 'modern,' whether it's biotech ... or stuff we haven't thought of yet," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch.

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of The Center for Food Safety, suggested organic and conventional farmers could find themselves unable to sue if their crops lose value because of contamination from a neighbor's biotech fields.

"I think that's a restriction on the potential rights of farmers in the state, rather than a guarantee," he said.

Aasmundstad, the North Dakota Farm Bureau leader, said guaranteeing farmers and ranchers the right to farm and ranch does not override regulation of such things as hog farm siting and production of biotech crops. He compared it to U.S. citizens having a constitutional right to bear arms but also being required to follow gun laws.

Johannes, the central North Dakota farmer, said supporters simply want to ensure their ability to produce food free from onerous restrictions.

"It keeps your options open," he said. "It doesn't give you a license to pillage and plunder."