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Why Messaging Matters As Right-To-Farm Opponents Gear Up For Year-Long Campaign

Bethany Hardzinski

On Tuesday, the first organized resistance to Oklahoma’s “right-to-farm” movement gathered at the state Capitol to voice their opposition to State Question 777, which will put the issue before a vote of the people in November 2016.

Some background: right-to-farm is the idea there’s a guaranteed, unalienable right for farmers and ranchers to earn a living free from government intervention.

Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson speaking at a state Capitol news conference Nov. 17, 2015.
Credit Brent Fuchs / The Journal Record
The Journal Record
Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson speaking at a state Capitol news conference Tuesday.

“The proposed law says that regulations of agriculture must have a compelling state interest, and that's a very high bar to get over,” said The Journal Record’s managing editor Adam Brooks.

The Oklahoma Stewardship Council is led by former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, and the group says it plans to spend about $2 million on a campaign to fight the ballot initiative over the next year. During Tuesday’s press conference, Edmondson said right-to-farm could end the regulation of cockfighting and puppy mills, according to The Journal Record’s Dale Denwalt:

Despite claims that the measure would protect small family farms, Edmondson claims it was written for large, sometimes out-of-state companies that push for fewer regulations. He cited Brazilian meat processing firm JBS and Chinese companies that have an influence on Oklahoma agriculture markets.

He also said that if a regulation is repealed, such as the one barring cockfighting, trying to reintroduce it at a later date would set off a legal battle that animal-rights supporters might not win.

But Brooks says supporters of right-to-farm say Edmondson’s claims are unfounded.

“They did the old, 'It's out-of-state interests who are supporting this.' They cited the Humane Society,” Brooks said. “Edmondson's group also says out-of-state and international companies are in favor of right-to-farm. The supporters say that the people against State Question 777 just don't understand what it really takes to produce affordable food for our country, and they want to keep that supply going.”

University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie.
Credit Brent Fuchs / The Journal Record
The Journal Record
University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie.

Just how this issue is presented to voters also matters. University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie says whenever a “right” is brought up, there’s an assumption it’s inherent, and can’t be taken away.

“When you say 'right-to-farm,' what you're doing is you're appealing to this Jeffersonian yeoman farmer tradition,” Gaddie said. “This is about the Joads that are out there in southeastern Oklahoma farming. And the idea of the family farmer standing there, that farmer doesn't exist anymore.”

Fourteen years ago, Oklahoma became a “right-to-work” state through a similar ballot issue, and Gaddie says that was an example where the political victors framed more government regulation as an intrusion on a right worth protecting. Gaddie says Edmondson and the Oklahoma Stewardship Coalition are on target when they say right-to-farm boils down to two key components: creating a test case against the Environmental Protection Agency when it comes to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act interfering with farming activity, and a way to prevent state regulations of farming activity.

“The irony of this is the notion of farming free of government regulation or interference, well, we've got this thing called the Soil Bank, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, all this legislation that subsidizes American farming in order to keep the food supply safe and affordable,” Gaddie said. “The reason it's safe and affordable is because government regulators are involved. Because when you have unregulated farming, you get the Dust Bowl.”

The Business Intelligence Report is a collaborative news project between KGOU and The Journal Record.

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The Journal Record is a multi-faceted media company specializing in business, legislative and legal news. Print and online content is available via subscription.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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