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Kentucky, Indiana Lawmakers Ask: Is Farming an Inalienable Right?

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Lawmakers in Kentucky and Indiana want to add “farming” to the list of pursuits their residents have a right to enjoy. But environmental advocates say the measures would give agricultural operators unprecedented immunity and impede the ability of state regulators to protect the states from environmental damage from farms.

Similar “Right to Farm” legislation is making headway all over the country; a version is being pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a non-profit largely funded by large corporations and conservative donors such as the Koch brothers.

In Kentucky, the proposed legislation states:

“It is declared to be the policy of this state to sustain farming in all its forms, including but not limited to the planting, growing, harvesting, and processing of crops, the breeding, raising, feeding, processing, or keeping of all forms of livestock, the breeding, hatching, raising, feeding, processing, or keeping of poultry, and the practice of silviculture. The Legislature shall pass no law that unreasonably abridges the right of citizens of the state to engage fully in the practice of farming, now and in the future.”

Indiana’s bill states:

“The General Assembly may not pass a law that unreasonably abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ or refuse to employ effective agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices.”

Attorney Kim Ferraro of the Hoosier Environmental Council said these measures are about more than letting farmers have the “right” to farm.

"As long as what you’re doing is legal, everyone has a right to do it, including farmers,” she said. “Nobody’s saying farmers don’t have rights. In fact, in Indiana, farmers already have pretty elevated rights above people who engage in other industries and professions.”

Both Kentucky and Indiana already have “Right to Farm” statutes. Among other things, these laws prevent farmers from being sued by neighbors for nuisance odors. The new legislation would take things a step further.

“What this constitutional provision would do would enshrine it and elevate that right to a protected right that’s on par with our right to vote, freedom of religion, freedom of speech,” Ferraro said. "What you think of as our unalienable rights, those rights that are common to the human condition.”

And by doing this, Ferraro said, it would make it hard to regulate farms at all. So, if in a few years, state regulators decide new environmental laws are needed to reduce say, water pollution from farms, they wouldn’t be able to act.

Both pieces of proposed legislation explicitly say they won't affect any existing regulations, but say nothing about future regulations.

Jeff Harper of the Kentucky Farm Bureau said his organization supports the bill, and he doesn’t believe it would allow a “free-for-all” for farmers to damage the environment.

“We believe farmers are the best environmentalists that we have,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone wants to harm the environment or do anything that would risk the health and well-being of our environment.”

Adding the protections for farmers to the constitution would just solidify what’s already in the law, Harper said.

“It’s easier to repeal a law than it is to change the constitution. It would be more difficult to change the constitution because it would take another constitutional amendment to repeal it," Harper said.

In Kentucky, the bill (SB57) has been referred to the Senate State and Local Government Committee. In Indiana, the resolution (SJR12) will be heard on Monday by the Senate Committee on Agriculture. If approved, both measures would be on the ballot in 2016.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.