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New Jersey a proud exception (Editorial)

(Feb. 15, 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.
New Jersey is the exception.
There, farmers are comfortable and the state’s agricultural industry has no reason to be uncomfortable — because the right to farm law has been tested and found true.
It’s another story elsewhere in these parts.
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 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.
Being 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.
Hard to say what constitutes “outside interests from asserting a negative influence,” because it could be many things: A neighbor running to the zoning officer, a municipality enacting a restrictive ordinance, an act of the legislature prohibiting a normal management practice because it might offend the sensibilities of a suburban constituency.
In New Jersey, said Peter Furey, the man who has directed the state’s Farm Bureau for many years, the state’s right-to-farm program has been tested and upheld by the state Supreme Court.
“I believe it has been upheld because it was carefully crafted to weigh both sides of a dispute,” he said, “and as a first option to seek mediation while giving the farm operator a safe harbor when adhering to recommended management practices.”
In New Jersey, right-to-farm is better at settling disputes than it is as a cudgel against policy interventions, though it could be used to help in both instances, Furey said.
However, there is no question of the status of right-to-farm in the Garden State.
It remains the No. 1 ranked policy area for New Jersey Farm Bureau as decided at its annual convention.