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Lawmakers pondering 'ag gag' bill

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GREENFIELD — Local lawmakers are closely watching bills that could affect Hancock County’s agricultural community.

Sen. Mike Crider and Rep. Bob Cherry wrapped up their second week in the state Legislature with their own bills assigned to committees and plenty of studying ahead on issues that will come up for debate in coming weeks.

And since the Greenfield Republicans represent many farmers, they say they’re keeping an open mind to legislation that could impact their constituents.

One, the so-called “ag gag” bill, would allow farmers to post signs prohibiting trespassing that could compromise operations or trade secrets. Proponents say the bill protects agricultural operations; opponents have raised red flags about First Amendment rights, because the measure is aimed in part at people who make photographs or record video of farming operations. The impetus for similar bills in other states is the efforts of animal activists who have sought to document practices on farms.

Crider said he’s already heard from people who are concerned about protecting the media or other whistle-blowers from reporting on illegal or distasteful practices.

“It’s something I’m looking forward to hearing more discussion about,” Crider said.

A similar bill failed last year on the final day of the session. It was withdrawn after criticism over criminal charges.

Roy Ballard, Hancock County Purdue Extension educator, said he can see both sides of the issue but that trespassing on farms locally hasn’t been a problem.

“Certainly, we hope all farmers are professionals, and we want animals and crops to be produced in a humane and professional manner,” he said.

People seeking to document activities on a farm could bring contaminants into the operation or expose trade secrets, Ballard said. But it’s also important that there be a means to expose unethical operations.

“Farmers have the right to produce the crops in the manner they feel is appropriate without the intrusion of others onto their property,” he said. “But at the same time, the consumer has the right to feel they are consuming a crop or product that’s been produced in a humane manner.”

The author of the bill, Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, says farmers are the ones who are being unfairly targeted by groups that want to vandalize or harm their businesses.

“Law enforcement officers and a number of local and state agencies are currently tasked with responding to complaints and abuse in agricultural operations, and that responsibility should remain with them,” Holdman said in a statement this week to the Bloomington Herald-Times. “However, I am currently working to provide a safe harbor from penalty to concerned individuals who act in good faith and discover illegal and noncompliance issues.”

Cherry said since the bill is being heard in the Senate so far, he hasn’t formed an opinion. He said it was killed last year before it reached the House floor so he never heard the debate. The current bill, Senate Bill 101, has not moved from the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee.

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