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Jane Ahlin, Published November 03 2012

Ahlin: Measure 3 a fake solution to a nonexistent problem

Measure 3, the “North Dakota Farming and Ranching Amendment,” is a solution looking for a problem that does not exist. The notion that farming and ranching in this state are so defenseless

and state government so unreliable that we must change the North Dakota Constitution to provide adequate protection is – in a word – laughable. Measure 3 also has the possibility of causing harm because it opens a legal can of worms and puts the state of North Dakota in the position of being unable to respond to future farming challenges.

Here is the text of the proposed change to the constitution:

“The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state. No law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.”

What exactly are “modern” farming and ranching practices? For that matter, what are “practices”? No question those words can be parsed legally more ways than any of us wants to think about. Still, some “what ifs” point up the variety of messes this measure might cause. What happens if one farmer’s “modern practices” bump up against the “modern practices” of another? For instance, what happens if the farmer of a small family farm complains about a corporate hog operation next door?

Ah, proponents will answer, there are existing laws about corporate hog farms that won’t be affected by the amendment.

Okey-dokey, let’s assume that’s true. Now ask an obvious question: Had this constitutional amendment passed before the growth of North Dakota factory farms in the mid to late 1990s, would state government or local zoning authorities have been able to deal with the many concerns (and very real problems) those farms presented – farms much different from anything North Dakota had seen before? Surely 20,000 animals confined to a small area would have qualified under “modern” agricultural “practices” back then. Would that have kept state and local authorities from timely action to solve the problems?

That brings us to an important point: How are we to anticipate serious problems that might be inherent in new kinds of farming when we have no idea what those new “modern practices” might be or how they might affect the lives of future North Dakotans? What unanticipated trouble and expense for state and local governments will be caused when those authorities are hamstrung by a vaguely written constitutional amendment?

In an article by Mikkel Pates for Agweek, a proponent of the measure by the name of Rachel Bina was quoted as saying, “It’s an opportunity to establish in our constitution that we’re a pro-ag state.” (Does anybody really think North Dakota is not a “pro-ag state”?) Then she got to her real point, which was the fear that North Dakota could go the way of California (where she lived for a time), particularly in the regulation of genetically engineered crops and land maintenance. Her words were that “we need to be prepared for influences that may be from out of the country or from people from completely different ideological lifestyles.”

If that is the intent of the amendment (and I think it’s fair to say it is), then why not write that amendment? Why not write an amendment that gives special status to genetically modified crops or exempts landowners from future ecological regulation? People who sign the petition would understand what they were signing, voters would understand what they were voting on, and there would be no room for legal quibbling afterward. As it is now, Measure 3 is likely to bring federal control when state and local laws can’t overrule the constitution.

North Dakotans feel natural affection for farmers and ranchers, who always have been the lifeblood of our economy. We also love common sense. With plenty of “pro-ag” laws on the books, we do not need a vague constitutional amendment. Vote “no” on Measure 3.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.