BY HARLAN HENTGES
Oklahomans are arguing about “right to farm.” How did that happen?
Oklahoma loves farmers. No one seriously believes there is any chance our Legislature would outlaw farming. Yet, someone hatched the idea that we need a constitutional “right to farm.” This is SQ 777 on the November ballot. If passed, it would be unconstitutional for the Legislature to pass a law limiting any agricultural technology or livestock raising practice, unless there is a compelling state interest.
Instead of arguing about “right to farm,” which is as useful as teats on a boar, let’s look at how this happened.
THIS ISN’T ABOUT FARMERS
Agriculture is changing rapidly due to industrialization. In industrial agriculture, the key is reducing the need for the expensive skills of a farmer. A “farmer” is skilled in animal husbandry, agronomy and business and can manage the unpredictability of nature to produce food economically. This skill set is not needed by an industrial “agricultural producer” which uses laborers to operate equipment and feed animals. A “farmer” working as an “agricultural producer,” is like a chef working at McDonalds – over-skilled and underpaid.
‘AG PRODUCERS’ TRIUMPH OVER ‘FARMERS’
Oklahoma hog production is an example of how “agricultural producers” triumphed over “farmers.” Before 1990, hogs were typically raised by Midwest corn farmers. Then Seaboard brought industrial hog production to Guymon, where it slaughters 19,000 hogs per day. Consultants dictate how hogs are fed, medicated and confined in massive buildings. Laborers work. Managers handle finances. They don’t need a farmer, but are more than happy to use his good name. Without real “farmers,” there’s no good reason to argue about a “right to farm.”
NO GOOD REASON, BUT THERE’S A BAD ONE
Industrialization causes problems that have nothing to do with farmers. These problems stem from market power of multinational agricultural corporations [“Big Ag”]. The biggest are JBS of Brazil, largest beef packer in the U.S. and world; Chinese-owned Smithfield, largest pork producer in the U.S and world; Monsanto, world’s largest seed company and fifth largest chemical company; and Chinese-owned Syngenta, the world’s largest agrochemical company. These companies own the “agricultural technologies and livestock production and ranching practices” that are protected by SQ 777. Big Ag does not want any state laws that might interfere with their use of market power to push their products on farmers and consumers. This is the rotten core of SQ 777.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH MARKET POWER?
When Big Ag ignores less powerful market participants like farmers and consumers, it creates problems the market can’t fix.
Take sow crates. Seaboard keeps sows in narrow crates. They can stand up, lay down, move forward and back a couple of feet, but cannot turn around. A sow only leaves to give birth and nurse in a different crate for about two weeks. Because she can’t move, she needs less feed which means lower costs, more sales and larger profits for Seaboard. Sows in crates wasn’t a problem until consumers found out.
Consumers are troubled by the idea of a sow living its entire life in narrow crate, but Big Ag, due to market power, does not have to listen to consumers. The market failed consumers, so they exercised their rights as citizens. Laws getting rid of sow crates passed in nine states. Despite the backlash, some corporations, like Seaboard, continue to use crates wherever they’re legal, including Oklahoma
How bad could it be?
In addition to sow crates, Big Ag’s new industrial technologies and practices raise other controversies over growth stimulants, genetically modified organism [GMOs], clones, etc. Some issues are merely matters of consumer preferences, but history shows they can be matters of life and death.
One issue overshadows the others – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy [BSE] – Mad Cow disease. Mad Cow is not fully understood, but it is believed Mad Cow entered the food supply because cattle were fed remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bone meal [MBM]. MBM, a cheap source of protein, meant higher profits for agricultural producers. Even though the exact cause of Mad Cow is not completely understood, laws were passed against feeding MBM.
SQ 777 would make a law against MBM unconstitutional, unless it could be proven there was a “compelling state interest.” Such proof would have been difficult because the exact cause of Mad Cow disease was, and still is, in doubt. Would Big Ag volunteer to give up MBM? Big tobacco’s response to cancer, and big oil’s response to earthquakes, suggests that Big Ag might not act voluntarily.
HOW DID SQ 777 GET TO OKLAHOMA?
“Right to farm” is the offspring of Big Ag and the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC]. In Oklahoma, it is driven by the Oklahoma Pork Council, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, and Oklahoma Farm Bureau. Rep. Scott Biggs and Sen. Jason Smalley were persuaded to carry the legislation that put SQ 777 on the ballot.
The label “right to farm” gives politicians a perfect tool for pandering. They argue it is vitally important that we protect farmers from liberals. It gets funny when you imagine big guys in cowboy hats begging for protection from tree-hugging animal lovers. It is not so funny when you see that Oklahomans are being paid to mislead friends and neighbors and ridicule those who understand the deception – a regular occurrence on social media and elsewhere.
BIG AG CAN’T BE SATISFIED
Big Ag brought this divisive fight to Oklahoma because it knows that, even in Oklahoma, it will face scrutiny for its treatment of farmers and consumers. Seaboard, specifically, must be concerned about its sow crate issue. By bringing SQ 777 to Oklahoma, Big Ag has proven it cannot be satisfied. Oklahoma has fed Big Ag in every way possible. It went along with Seaboard’s sow crates, Monsanto’s chemicals and GMOs, and Tyson’s chicken litter, but apparently, that is not enough. Big Ag wants more. With SQ 777, Big Ag wants Oklahomans to give up the right to ever disagree with anything Big Ag does.
Between now and November, there will be a lot of useless fighting about SQ 777 and the “right to farm.” Whatever the outcome in November, be assured that Seaboard and the rest of Big Ag will eventually learn what every farmer knows – pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.
– Harlan Hentges grew up farming in Noble County where his father, brother, nephew and their wives still farm. He has an agricultural economics degree from Oklahoma State University, Master of Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Juris Doctorate from the University of Texas-Austin. He practices law in Edmond, with an emphasis on issues related farmers, ranchers, and other small businesses and individuals. This essay first appeared in the September 2016 Oklahoma Observer.