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Oklahoma Right-to-Farm Debate Heats Up As Water Group Sues to Stop SQ 777

Save the Illinois River President Denise Deason-Toyne at No Head Hollow public access point on the Illinois River near Tahlequah, Okla.
Save the Illinois River President Denise Deason-Toyne at No Head Hollow public access point on the Illinois River near Tahlequah, Okla.

Save the Illinois River President Denise Deason-Toyne at No Head Hollow public access point on the Illinois River near Tahlequah, Okla.

Oklahoma could become a right-to-farm state if voters approve State Question 777 this November. But opponents are gearing up for a legal fight to keep the issue off the ballot.

Chicken waste worries

Denise Deason-Toyne looks out over the winding Illinois River from No Head Hollow, a river access point near Tahlequah.

“Let’s talk chicken litter,” she says.

Deason-Toyne is the president of the water advocacy group Save the Illinois River. She’s talking about chicken litter because a decade ago, her group supported the state’s lawsuit against poultry companies that were polluting the river with chicken waste.

“Maybe they did not intend those consequences, but certainly once they learned that overuse of poultry litter as fertilizer was causing a phosphorous problem in the river, they would’ve stopped if they were that concerned,” Deason-Toyne says. “But no, we had to challenge that.”

Right-to-farm would amend the state constitution to prevent the legislature from passing bills that impede the farming and ranching process, without a compelling interest. For Deason-Toyne, that’s a problem. She says right-to-farm would make it easier for farmers to pollute. So her group is suing.

“We want to keep this off the ballot, and we want the court to say it is unconstitutional,” she says.

She says state question 777 would leave it to the courts to decide what’s in the state’s compelling interest, and it’s too vague.

“It’s confusing in that people already have the right to farm,” Deason-Toyne says. ”So what kind of a right is this actually giving?”

Right-to-farm fight taking shape

As StateImpact has reported, right-to-farm is basically a fight between the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and the Humane Society of the U.S., which pushes for stricter animal welfare laws that worry many larger farms.

Right-to-farm has broad support among agricultural interest, but local opposition is lining up. There’s Save the Illinois River, the Oklahoma Stewardship Council headed by former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, Sierra Club, and the Oklahoma Municipal League. And now, the Cherokee Nation has come out against right-to-farm.

“The Cherokee Nation has as long a history of agriculture as anyone on this continent, and agriculture is extremely important,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources Sara Hill says. “But to really support a right-to-farm you need to have the legislature being able to take action when it’s necessary, and this language really prevents that from happening.”

John Collision with the Oklahoma Farm Bureau says right-to-farm doesn’t have anything to do with water, and the recent lawsuit and growing resistance is badly misguided.

“Were there wrongs in the past? Sure. Are there laws on the book today that we have to follow? Absolutely. Does this state question do anything to take those laws off the book? Absolutely not,” Collison says.

He’s offended by the suggestion that farmers would use their constitutional right-to-farm to pollute water.

“We live here. We work here. Our kids grow up here,” Collison says. “We’re not going to pollute the water. That’s just the most ridiculous thing of all times. If you want to kill a bill come out with arguments that are legitimate. Don’t come out with scare tactics, say we’re going to pollute the water. That’s just nonsense.”

He’s confident the lawsuit will fail.

“It’s always interesting when groups come out and try to sue you in court before the bill’s even gone to the people,” Collison says.

A third way?

Republican State Representative Terry O’Donnell says agriculture isn’t a big interest in his Tulsa area district, but water quality is. He is neither in favor of nor against right-to-farm, but he’s pushing a bill that would define water quality as being in the state’s compelling interest.

“If that’s what the people of the state of Oklahoma want then I’m for that,” O’Donnell says. “But I don’t feel like we need to sacrifice our water quality so that you could have a hog farm or some sort of industrial agricultural activity shielded from protecting a watershed in various parts of the state.”

O’Donnell’s bill is waiting for a vote of the full state house. Back at No Head Hollow on the Illinois River, Denise Deason-Toyne says the legislation doesn’t appease her.

“In my opinion it’s a waste of their legislative time to be trying to propose this and making water rights a compelling state interest,” she says. “I mean, it should be a compelling state interest. That should be a given. But making it legislatively so is not going to trump a constitutional protection.”

In her words, it’s all bologna, or rather, chicken litter.

Copyright 2021 StateImpact Oklahoma. To see more, visit StateImpact Oklahoma.

Logan Layden