‘Right to farm’ amendment backers face tough questions in legislative hearing

February 23, 2016

Lincoln Journal Star

‘Right to farm’ amendment backers face tough questions in legislative hearing

  • By ZACH PLUHACEK / Lincoln Journal Star

A "right to farm" constitutional amendment would shield Nebraska’s top industry from environmentalists, animal rights groups and other outside threats, the measure’s sponsor says.

"Agriculture is the undisputed foundation of Nebraska," said state Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell.

That economic engine accounts for one-fourth of the state’s jobs and produces more than $25 billion each year.

But the extensive investment required to produce "food, fiber and fuel" on the state’s farms and ranches needs protecting, said Kuehn, himself a fourth-generation livestock owner and veterinarian.

His proposed constitutional amendment — which would require a vote of the people to enact if approved by the Legislature — is backed by about a dozen ag industry groups and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Yet two of the state’s leading farm advocacy groups threw cold water on the measure Tuesday during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee.

Representatives of the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Farmers Union urged caution and said they opposed using a constitutional amendment to accomplish Kuehn’s goals.

"This far-reaching proposal should not be put into our state Constitution," said Farmers Union President John Hansen, calling it “enormously radical.”

The measure would prohibit lawmakers from further restricting farming and ranching practices in Nebraska unless they could prove a "compelling state interest."

That limitation and other language in the proposal could tie the hands of state legislators in unexpected ways going forward, warned Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers.

Chambers and Omaha Sen. Burke Harr, the Agriculture Committee’s two members with law degrees, cited a litany of concerns about Kuehn’s proposed amendment, including wording that might be too vague and could result in unintended consequences.

For example, the measure as written would protect "livestock production and ranching practices" but contains no definitions for those terms, Chamber said, leaving it open to court interpretations or existing state laws that are subject to change.

The Nebraska language closely mirrors a proposed amendment Oklahoma voters will consider in November. Two other states, North Dakota and Missouri, have adopted their own right to farm amendments in recent years.

The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has long backed such proposals, but Kuehn has said he pursued the amendment on his own following controversy surrounding the 33,000-acre U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay County, which is in his legislative district.

A New York Times story published last January alleged decades of abuse and neglect at the center, resulting in calls for stricter oversight and a temporary halt to new research projects there.

A leading critic of the center has been the Humane Society of the United States.

On Tuesday, Kuehn accused the Humane Society and other groups of fueling "misconceptions about modern agriculture," particularly online through social media.

The Humane Society opposes Kuehn’s measure, and animal rights groups have questioned whether it could eventually be used to protect "puppy mills" or other forms of animal abuse.

Kuehn — whose home features a "menagerie of geriatric rescue animals," including a 24-year-old free-range miniature donkey — said he would never seek to abuse or neglect pets or livestock.

Robert Bernt, a farmer and rancher from north-central Nebraska, warned lawmakers not to trust other farmers who claim to care about the environment but oppose regulations intended to protect it.

"These people speak out of one side of their mouth and do the opposite," Bernt said.

Chambers suggested that Kuehn’s supporters are reacting more to criticism from outside groups than to any actual legislation that has damaged farming in Nebraska.

"You can’t change anything that’s on Facebook," Chambers said during an exchange with Dave McCracken of the Nebraska Cattlemen, which supported the measure.

"We can stop the misinformation from making bad laws," McCracken countered.

Kuehn said protecting farming and ranching is especially important as Nebraska becomes more urbanized and fewer people have regular interactions with agriculture in the state.

And state lawmakers should face a greater burden if they want to pass laws that restrict people’s business practices, he said.

"We’re just looking for protections to do legal things," said Al Juhnke of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association, another supporter.

"Too often, public policy we’ve seen is driven by emotion.”