OKLAHOMA CITY — Paul Muegge convened an eclectic group of neighbors of his small farm in Tonkawa last week to talk about the "dangerous precedent" that could be set if Oklahomans pass a "right to farm" ballot measure this fall.
Among 20 people who showed up were a city manager, retired school teachers and the owner of a meat market. They listened as Muegge, 79, who grows hay and alfalfa, and raises cattle, explained his worry that the measure will stop the community from speaking up about activities that threaten the environment.
A week earlier, the state Farm Bureau convened its own meeting, targeting nearly 200 younger, more urban Oklahomans at a popular brewery in Oklahoma City.
The group, however, was urging people to support the ballot measure.
The measure, Question 777, seeks to keep government from blocking farmers' rights to use technology “without a compelling state interest," and it has turned Oklahoma into a battleground.
Farmers, agriculture groups, animal rights activists and environmentalists are already in the throes of a campaign, four months before the election.
That means raising big money. Two groups supporting the measure, for example, reported raising more than $500,000 in the first three months of the year.
Such right-to-farm proposals are cropping up in response to a raft of other legislation that constricts farmers, by limiting the use of genetically modified crops or restricting livestock practices that have been criticized as cruel. North Dakota and Missouri have already adopted right-to-farm measures.
At the center of the debate is the question of how much control state lawmakers and local leaders should have in regulating agriculture — a lifeblood of rural Oklahoma.
Farm Bureau President Tom Buchanan said non-farmers, such as those who attended his group's meeting, will ultimately decide the future of agriculture and livestock production in Oklahoma when they vote.
Opponents of the right-to-farm initiative say the real question is how much freedom is given to agribusiness to operate as it pleases.
The Oklahoma campaign, they contend, is being closely watched around the country by groups waiting to unveil similar measures.
“We’re a testing ground here,” said Maegge, a former state senator who is now vice chairman of the state Stewardship Council, which represents animal rights advocates and environmental groups.
Maegge said the ballot initiative will handcuff the state.
“You lock something into the Constitution like this, and use the term ‘compelling state interest,’ that’s forever,” he said. “How’s a local community going to be able to pass ordinances? They won’t be able to.
"This just doesn’t affect state government," he noted. "If affects all levels of government.”
Supporters of the right-to-farm movement say most government leaders are far removed from agriculture, and there’s little reason they should be restricting the practices of farmers and ranchers.
“Primarily we support this because it gives farmers and ranchers the knowledge that they will be able to operate in the future,” said Buchanan, a cotton farmer and beef producer in Altus.
“In reality, the biggest winner on right-to-farm is the consumer," he said. "If there are individuals or organizations who do not agree with certain production methods … then we believe that your ability as a consumer should be protected so that you can vote, so to speak, at the grocery store.”
The sides agree on little except that both blame outside interests, either big business or animal rights groups, as the source of controversy.
Ultimately they also agree that thousands of non-farmers will decide what shape agriculture takes in the state.
Only 2 percent of Oklahomans — about 88,000 people — still work on farms or ranches, according to the Farm Bureau. That’s slightly more than the national average of 1.5 percent.
“We are certainly becoming a very distinct minority,” said Buchanan, who describes "a big disconnect” between farmers and urbanites who consume their products.
In illustrating a reason to pass the initiative, Buchanan describes a recent bill in the Statehouse to prohibit the planting of genetically modified crops.
For years, Oklahoma farmers have used genetically modified seed to grow cotton, corn, soybeans and canola.
Stalks of the modified crops are more resistant to drought and pests. The modified crops also have increased yields.
Had the bill made it to Gov. Mary Fallin's desk, Buchanan said it would have crippled the agriculture industry and caused "a major impact economically and on the availability of food."
Yet, such proposals are increasingly common.
States including California and Massachusetts have considered or adopted laws that dictate the kinds of cages used to raise chickens, and limiting the products that can be sold in grocery stores.
Buchanan fears that those kinds of efforts could easily take root in Oklahoma, raising food prices and threatening the livelihoods of producers.
The right-to-farm measure, he said, “allows Oklahomans to continue to decide what Oklahoma agriculture looks like."
But Muegge and his group argue that state and local government are the best watchdogs of agriculture.
He cites a 1992 announcement by an East Coast company that planned to bring sewage sludge to Oklahoma and spread it on farmland.
The Legislature rebuffed the effort and only later learned that the federal government had prohibited the same company from dumping the sludge into the ocean.
“They were selling it as this great agricultural fertilizer for farmland, when in fact no one knew what was in it,” he said.
Muegge said he worries that, if the right-to-farm measure passes, the Legislature will have no ability to stop a similar plan in the future.
The sludge was pitched as technology, and there would be no “compelling interest" to block its use.
“And now they want an immunity in the state Constitution so that nobody can question what they’re doing?” he said, adding that such schemes could contaminate the water resources.
Roy Lee Lindsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Pork Council, disputes that a right-to-farm law keeps lawmakers from intervening in those kinds of cases.
“If you’re talking about protecting water, protecting our natural resources, no, I don’t think it makes it more difficult,” said Lindsey, whose group represents about 2,000 people who work in the state’s pork industry and about 300 commercial swine facilities.
“If clean water is not a compelling state interest, I don’t know what would be," he said. "Folks that say this will limit the ability to regulate clean water, they’re just trying to distract people from what the question really does.”
As Oklahoma's cities grow, Lindsey said it’s easier to forget how some decisions affect agriculture.
If lawmakers are worried about limiting the government's authority, he noted, they wouldn’t have put this measure on the ballot.
The initiative, he said, is "good for the backbone of rural Oklahoma."
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ReporterJanelle.