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Cleaner water? Safer animals? Who’s right in ‘Right to Farm’ debate?

OKLAHOMA - A father and daughter gaze over 90 acres of Calumet farmland - in the family for five generations - and wonder what will become of it.

"We see fewer and fewer people involved in farming and ranching currently," said David VonTungeln. "And, as we see that trend continue, there's often misguided laws and regulations that are unnecessary and burdensome and impact what we do everyday."

VonTungeln and his daughter, Amanda Rosholt, want security.

They want protection from what they see as meddling out-of-state lobbyists that, in their opinion, threaten their well-being and way of life.

They will vote in favor of State Question 777.

"I would say passing State Question 777 allows us to focus on what we're good at and what we do everyday," Rosholt said. "It allows us to focus on our crops and our livestock and our environmental stewardship and not have to be hyper-vigilant about what's going on at the state."

SQ 777, billed as 'Right to Farm,' would amend the constitution and create special, guaranteed rights for the agriculture industry.

Laws already on the books would not be changed, but it would make it difficult to pass future laws.

Any bill regulating agriculture would have to have pass strict scrutiny in court and have a "compelling state interest" to be upheld as law.

"This is a no-lose situation," VanTungeln said. "There's nothing detrimental in the bill. It just provides protections and ensures consumers they're going to have an affordable choice of food in the future, the choices of the type of food they want and it affords us to produce them."

Supporters of Right to Farm cite other, out-of-state statutes as reason to panic.

Without SQ 777, supporters fear lobbyists from groups like the Humane Society of the U.S. (one of the opposition's top donors) and the Sierra Club may push through legislation similar to California's Proposition 2, which required all eggs sold in the state to come from chickens that have a certain amount of space in their cages.

Critics claim it drove up costs, and thus the price of eggs at the supermarket.

VanTungeln fears the same thing could happen if a law requires more pasture for his cows.

"When you start making a law too restrictive, you get a lot of unintended consequences," he said.

But, opponents like Covington farmer Paulette Rink, said the fears are unfounded.

"I call it the boogeyman syndrome," she said. "The real boogeyman is if this law passes, because we don't know what new technology will bring to us. We don't know what new innovations will bring to us. We don't know what the future holds in agriculture, and for us as Oklahomans not to be able to regulate something that's potentially harmful to us is appalling to me."

"It is really the fear of the unknown, but why do we need a bill to regulate the unknown?" she asked. "We the people of Oklahoma, are we too dumb to know what's good for us that we need a law saying agriculture can do whatever they want?"

The legislation has divided Rink's family and other agricultural families in the state.

Her first issue with the legislation is the name.

All 50 states already ensure the 'Right to Farm' in laws already on the books, according to the National Agriculture Law Center.

Oklahoma's forbids any "nuisance," defined as anything that "annoys, injures or endangers ... the comfort ... health or safety of others."

"We have the right to farm," she said. "Anybody can farm. Nobody is trying to take that away from us whatsoever. But, what 'Big Ag' wants to do is come in and say 'Now you as the people should not be able to tell me as the agricultural industry how to run my business.'"

The biggest fears on the Rink farm are pollutants from neighbors that couldn't be forbidden by law because her farm's interest isn't a "compelling state interest."

She wonders why the agriculture industry should get what amounts to a special legal protection.

"If we changed the words and gave the right to give the gas and oil industry whatever they wanted to do, would you still vote for it?" she asked. "We don't know what the future holds in technologies. This ties our hands for any new technologies."

Opponents also point to the conservative lobbying group ALEC, which has pushed Right to Farm legislation across the country.

Missouri and North Dakota passed similarly worded amendments in the last few years.

Opponents said SQ 777 would take power away from local lawmakers, though federal laws would not be subject to the same restrictions.

Rosholt and VanTungeln said Oklahomans do have the power - to legislate this change Nov. 8.