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Oklahoma farmers weigh in about Right to Farm ballot measure

Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Who is talking to the farmers about The Right to Farm measure, or State Question 777?

Recently, Red Dirt Report has covered this issue that will go before voters on the November ballot, speaking to both supporters and opponents. The debate is understandably heated, as both sides present fiery opinions on why they believe Right to Farm would benefit or hurt the state.

Oklahomans for Food, Farm and Family, a nonprofit formed specifically to fight against SQ 777, is made up of members of the Oklahoma Municipal League, the Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Farm and Food Alliance with support from the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, the League of Women Voters, the Choctaw Nation, the Cherokee Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, Muscogee Creek Nation, the Seminole Nation and other organizations.

On the flip side, The Oklahoma Pork Council, Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, Oklahoma Agricultural Cooperative Council, The Poultry Federation, Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association, Oklahoma Grain & Feed Association, Oklahoma Sorghum Association, and Oklahoma Cotton Council have all endorsed their support of the measure.

But for the actual farmers whose blood runs with the red dirt of Oklahoma and who raise chicken, cattle, sheep and hogs, the ballot measure goes deeper. For every farmer who harvests wheat and corn, and for every hog farmer who watches livestock born and shipped off for processing, SQ 777 has far-reaching implications.

We sat down to talk with farmers and ranchers in the far corners of the state to ask them how they feel about the constitutional amendment that SQ 777 is proposing.

For those working the land and raising livestock, the question isn’t as cut and dried as most may think.

The arguments

Opponents to SQ 777 feel the measure grants too much power and not enough regulation to the agricultural industry, elevating farming and ranching to a constitutional right like freedom of speech. No other industry, not even Oklahoma’s strong oil and gas sector, is granted such freedom from regulation.

“This idea didn’t originate in Oklahoma,” said Ron Suttles, board chair of the Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma. “This is a national push by national corporate interests that protect industry. No other industry in Oklahoma has that protection, and cities, lawmakers and state agencies will become powerless against big corporate ag.”

According to a recent legal analysis presented by opponents, SQ 777 would “tie the hands of the Oklahoma legislature in protecting citizens against harmful agriculture practices, would force federal oversight and would allow large farm operations to draw unlimited amounts of water in the name of advancing agriculture technology.”

However, supporters of the measure say it would stop overreach from lawmakers and regulators and would protect “the hardworking farm and ranch families that drive our rural economy from out-of-state animal-rights groups that have targeted agriculture nationwide. It also protects small and organic farmers and ensures Oklahoma families are able to afford the food they need.”

All regulations that currently exist or have been passed by Dec. 31, 2016, would remain in place, they said, and will not empower large ag conglomerates.

“This helps the family farmers and ranchers,” said Mark Yates, director of field operations with the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. “This is not deregulation of agriculture. All the rules and regulations will still be on the books. What we want to see is in the future that when the legislative body convenes on any further regulation that it is in the best interests of Oklahoma.”

According to the Farm Bureau, 98 percent of agriculture in Oklahoma are family-owned farms and ranches, and Oklahoma ranks fourth in the number of family-owned farms. In addition, of the 44 million acres of agricultural land in Oklahoma, 325,000 acres – or less than 1 percent – is owned by corporate agriculture.

What the farmers, ranchers say

“We care for our land”

In 1901, Brittany Krehbiel’s great-grandfather traded a wagon-load of oats and a team of mules for a small parcel of land near Hinton, west of Oklahoma City. That same small parcel of land passed down to five generations of family, expanding to a 2,500-acre farm that produces wheat, canola, milo, peanuts and other crops.

The Krehbiel Farms also raises roughly 200 commercial Dorset ewes, but today, Brittany Krehbiel worries about unrealistic regulations that could affect the future of the family farming operation. She supports SQ 777.

“My view is that to protect farms, we truly need to pass 777,” she said. “I believe that passing this will allow me to pass my farm on to future generations. If it doesn’t pass, then it might not affect the consumers or producers the day after, but in the weeks, months and years to come, we will see outside forces going to the legislature to impose their regulations.”

Because regulations and rules exist already that protect Oklahoma’s land and water supply, Krehbiel feels the argument that the environment would be harmed is a weak one.

“For any rules to change, you have to show it is in the best interest of the state,” she said. “PETA and the Humane Society of United States are the big groups pushing this. They say they do good things, but they target animal agriculture. Right now, we are allowed to produce in a very safe and humane way.”

Though many opponents have argued that passage of the measure would allow of inhumane treatment of animals or “new technology” that may harm food, Krehbiel said farmers in Oklahoma care deeply about not only their crops, but their livestock too.

“We sell our livestock, and we don’t do anything to harm our livestock or crops,” Krehbiel said. “We want them to be healthy. They need us to care for them, and we never do anything to harm them, because we eat them before the consumer does. We eat what we grow and raise. Why would we harm what we eat and what the consumer eats?

“I still feel like it’s our God-given job and duty to care for our land and livestock. These outside forces want to eliminate animal agriculture. The main problem I see are outside groups not from Oklahoma going to the capitol, changing our laws.”

“Keeping big ag out”

In Asher, Oklahoma, one of Patrice Whittle’s sows at Double R Farms gave birth in the woods, bringing in little piglets that will spend their lives roaming free around the property alongside cattle and chickens.

Whittle and her husband started their farm in 2005 and today raise 100 Berkshire hogs on 75 acres south of Shawnee. They sell their meat through the Oklahoma Food Cooperative and at the OSU-OKC Farmers Market in Oklahoma City.

Whittle still cries when she sends her hogs to be processed, but she knows they’ve lived a happy life until that day. If SQ 777 passes, she worries that major commercial hog and livestock operations will have the ability to treat animals even more inhumanely than she feels they do now.

“I think SQ 777 is very deceptive – we already have the ‘right to farm.’ This is nothing but deregulation that allows big ag to pull as much water out of the ground as they want and abuse animals,” she said. “We raise hogs, cattle and chicken, and we are animal welfare-approved. They are treated with respect and kindness on pastures. It’s appalling how animals are treated in commercial operations. They are raised in confinement, given antibiotics and growth enhancers.”

Whittle said while the “Right to Farm” bill sounds like it protects small farmers like her, she felt it allowed big corporate operations to avoid future regulations that protect the state’s water supply and livestock.

“What is wrong with how we are doing now?” Whittle said. “Big ag is just going to get bigger and bigger. The average age of a farmer today is 60, and it’s very difficult for young people to make a living as a small farmer. For big ag, it’s all about making it cheaper. It’s scary. If major big ag wants it to pass so badly, that should put up the red flags. You can’t trust them.”

“Protect the future”

Josh Emerson owns a cow/calf operation in Checotah. His father, a school teacher, began cow/calf ranching as a part-time operation, and Josh bought his first cattle at age 14. Since then, he’s built a full-time cattle ranch that supports his family.

He also worries about the future of local family-owned farms, and he feels SQ 777 will protect Oklahoma’s independent ranchers and farmers.

“Right to Farm is going to have to be passed for the future of agriculture in our state,” he said. “I have a 21-month old daughter, and we’re not getting rich out here. We’re just people who love to feed and clothe the world.”

Emerson said if regulations keep getting pushed through by outside interests at a state level, he might not be able to keep his ranch for his children. He also said he is offended by the argument that more regulations are needed to protect animals from abuse.

“We take care of our animals and our property,” he said. “We’ve been using conservation practices all this time – we have to. If we don’t treat our cattle, pigs and chicken right, then we don’t produce a quality product. If they don’t have enough food, water or space, it’s bad for them, and we eat what we raise. Right to Farm is a protection for us.”

He also worries that not passing the Right to Farm bill would only encourage bigger agricultural operations to squeeze out small farmers.

“Some of my worries are that when you talk to agricultural students, a very small number are going into ranching and farming,” he said. “All this will do, if not passed, is invite big ag to come in because not passing Right to Farm will make it tougher for the family farmer. Why would our young people want to farm if they have so many costly regulations?

“With more regulations come higher food prices. If we are going to feed the world, we have to do it as efficiently as possible.”

“Protect our resources”

Every week, Kamala Gamble of Kim’s Cookery & Guilleford Gardens provides bags of fresh, seasonal produce to roughly 110 subscribers from her small 2-acre farm in the heart of Oklahoma City. For 12 years, she has nurtured tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, corn, cantaloupe, squash, lettuces, carrots, beets and more as a fresh provider of homegrown vegetables.

She can’t understand why SQ 777 is being promoted so aggressively and worries that passage of the measure would allow commercial operations to do business unchecked.

“This revokes the legislature’s ability to protect our land, water and air and creates a constitutional amendment,” she said. “We’ve seen what happens. Remember when the chicken farms in another state were polluting our Arkansas River? Remember the issues in Guymon? If this passes, we as citizens will have no legislative ability to protect or change operations for years to come.”

She agreed that small and family farmers and ranchers protect the land, but worries that out-of-state or even global agricultural operations would not have the same consideration.

“Why would a company in China care about our land in Oklahoma?” she said. “This will give those kinds of corporations unchecked ability to do what they want, and then we will spend years trying to fix the regulations afterwards.”

Gamble isn’t worried about outside organizations like PETA or HSUS coming in to change regulations because she feels the legislature would side with Oklahoma farmers.

“They can’t come in and try to push unrealistic regulations. The legislature wouldn’t pass those,” she said. “I think that argument is a knee-jerk reaction to what happened in California. Our legislature wouldn’t go for that kind of regulation, but they are not going to let some corporation put another sludge farm by my house either.

“If this passes and there is more damage to our air, water and land, then the legislature would have to prove that the damage was done and that it was a compelling state interest,” she said. “That would take a long time, and at that point, it will be all about clean up of the damage.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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