Ag looks to constitutions for help (Editorial)

(Feb. 10, 2015) Farmers in the Mid-Atlantic fear the erosion of their ability to stay viable so deeply they are asking for constitutional amendments to preserve their right to farm.
Last month, heads of the Southern Maryland county Farm Bureaus urged their legislative delegation to sponsor a bill amending the state’s constitution “to protect this vital sector of Maryland’s economy, the right of farmers to engage in farming practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state.”
According to the Farm Bureau, the amendment is intended to constrain outside interests from asserting a negative influence in Maryland agriculture by stopping future initiatives, or otherwise limiting farmers’ ability to use new technologies in plants and animals, progressive best management practices or innovative agricultural practices.
The state’s current Right-to-Farm law in Maryland affords some protection for nuisance suits against agricultural operations but does not convey any property rights or any right-to-farm.
A constitutional amendment would no doubt give farmers an unprecedented freedom to operate though the earliest it would appear on a ballot is 2016.
In Delaware, a bill seeking similar protections for agriculture was sponsored in 2013 but has yet to move out of the House Agriculture Committee.
In Virginia this year, three state senators seek to amend the the constitution to guarantee the right of citizens to acquire, for their own consumption, farm produced food directly at the farm including raw milk and uninspected meat.
Such a measure could be a boost for small farms wanting to control a product from start to finish and not incur the expense of meeting processing and inspection regulations. It would also shift more responsibility to the farmer and customer to trust that product is safe and fairly labeled.
But farm groups wary of the bill include the Virginia Grain Producers Association that says such an amendment would threaten food safety and interstate trade in the commonwealth.
If passed, the amendment would presumably trump any existing statute, regulation or inspectional oversight that might be imposed on the farmers in order for them to sell their food products and there would be no requirement that the farmer understand or take steps to eliminate or minimize potential public health hazards.
“Most troubling is the fact that Virginia could lose its status under USDA as having a meat inspection program that is ‘at least equal to’ federal standards,” VGPA said. “Federal law requires that a state’s meat inspection program have standards that are at least equal to those required on the federal level, and if Virginia is found to be out of compliance, USDA could take over the commonwealth’s program.”
There are currently 63 meat slaughter and processing facilities inspected by VDACS and inspection is a requirement for interstate shipment.
The movement in these three states to have farming protected by their constitution sends two signals: First, a single law doesn’t appear to be enough to protect farms and farmers from the threats that surround them. Second, should these amendments reach a ballot for referendum by the state’s populace, it will be a true measure of the peoples’ respect and understanding of the need for a vibrant farming industry.