A proposed state constitutional amendment set for the November general election ballot is a Trojan horse for corporate agriculture interests, opponents of the measure said Monday.

“If a legislative proposal, especially a proposal to amend the constitution, is called ‘Right to Farm,’ the one thing I’m sure of is that it’s not about the right to farm,” Oklahoma City University law professor Art LeFrancois told about 125 people at All Souls Unitarian Church.

State Question 777 is a legislative referendum that would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to prevent future laws, regulations or local ordinances from governing agricultural activity, except in cases of “compelling state interest.”

The amendment is supported by several agriculture groups, including the Farm Bureau, American Farmers and Ranchers (formerly Farmers Union), the Oklahoma Pork Council and the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association.

Its stated purpose is to counter the activities of animal welfare, environmental and water-quality organizations. Such groups, proponents of SQ 777 have said, are intent on driving large-scale production agriculture out of business.

On the other side are the Sierra Club, the Humane Society USA, former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson and the Oklahoma Municipal League. Opposition largely falls under three categories: water quality, animal welfare and economic.

Monday presentation featured two representatives of the Kirkpatrick Foundation of Oklahoma City, which has taken up the cause of animal welfare; small farmer Emily Oakley; and former state Secretary of the Environment and Tulsa Water Commissioner Patty Eaton.

Eaton, whose term as secretary of the environment coincided with the advent of large confined animal feeding operations — known as CAFOs — in the early 1990s, said environmental regulation of those establishments would have been virtually impossible had SQ 777 been in force.

“What this would do is keep us from being able to use common sense and good law to allow corporate farming to do its job without running roughshod over the rest of the state,” Eaton said.

Supporters of SQ 777 say farmers and ranchers are the ones being run over by groups such as the Humane Society and Edmondson’s Oklahoma Stewardship Council.

Oakley, whose Three Springs Farm produce is a favorite of the Cherry Street Farmers Market in Tulsa, said the state question is not something she or her neighbors have asked for.

“It seems to me really pretty odd to change the constitution for one industry,” she said. “Can you imagine changing the federal constitution for something like this?”

Some small farmers, especially those engaged in organic and farm-to-table agriculture, fear that SQ 777 would, as Oakley put it, “enshrine” large operators’ rights to the detriment of water quality and small operators’ ability to compete.

“Some big farmers might not consider what I do farming,” Oakley said. “They might consider it gardening. But I have no off-farm income, and I get down off the tractor and work in the soil.

“There are farmers of all scales, most of them doing their best to make a living. Legislation like this makes it difficult for anyone to combat the ills … of factory farms. …

“All of us are affected by the land management practices around us. It’s in my interest for all land owners around me to do their best to preserve their quality of water.”

For eastern Oklahoma, water quality is not only a health issue but an economic issue because of the region’s reliance on tourism, which includes boating and sports fishing.

Proponents of SQ 777 insist that it will not affect water quality, but skeptics abound — especially because some of those same proponents were on the side of commercial poultry operations a decade ago.

“I have seen the wetlands and springs for the Cimarron River turn green,” said eastern Oklahoma environmentalist Earl Hatley. “The Canadian River. The streams down in the southeast. All turned green. … The beautiful Spring River … has turned green with nutrients (runoff from poultry waste that is often spread on farm lands as fertilizer).

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