INDIANAPOLIS — An agricultural bill that opponents warn would undermine Indiana residents' legal challenges against large livestock farms is moving closer to passage in the General Assembly.
The bill's author, state Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, says Indiana farmers need protection from animal rights activists and others he said are attacking the farming profession in courts.
His measure states, in part, that Indiana's policy is "to conserve, protect, and encourage" the development and improvement of agriculture for the production of food, fuel and other products. But it also contains language that opponents argue would unfairly favor farmers in lawsuits targeting industrial-scale livestock farms called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that raise thousands of animals and produce large amounts of manure, dust and strong odors.
The Indiana Senate approved the bill last month by 40-8 vote and the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee endorsed it on a 12-1 vote Thursday, sending it to the full House for consideration as early as this week.
Environmental and citizens groups told the House committee they're worried about language in the measure that says the law "shall be construed to protect the rights of farmers to choose among all generally accepted farming and livestock production practices, including the use of ever changing technology."
Hoosier Environmental Council attorney Kim Ferraro told the panel the wording appears to be an infringement by lawmakers on the judicial branch's authority and "is meant to serve a very special interest" — big agribusinesses like CAFOs.
She said the phrase "shall be construed" would in essence direct judges to favor farm operators in lawsuits, such as those filed by non-farming neighbors.
"You want to know that you've got a fair arbiter in a judge who's looking at the law and considering the rights of parties in a fair, objective manner," Ferraro said. "But this is saying, 'Judge, you've got to construe the law in favor of one party over the other.' "
She said Indiana's constitution gives farmers and other state residents the right to pursue legal business activities, and current state law provides more than adequate protections of farmers' rights.
Barbara Sha Cox, the founder of Indiana CAFO Watch and a fourth-generation farmer, told the committee that farmers don't need "extra rights."
"If you elevate those rights somebody else's rights are going down," she said. ". I think this bill will make bullies on the playground."
Yoder said his bill "simply protects agriculture" and that its opponents are grossly exaggerating its possible impact.
"This lets those individuals, especially judges when they have these lawsuits that come up, this lets them know that the General Assembly stands with the farming community," he said.
Farm groups including Indiana Farm Bureau, the Agribusiness Council of Indiana, Indiana Pork and the Indiana Soybean Alliance support the legislation.
Amy Cornell, a Farm Bureau policy adviser and counsel, told the House panel that former Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Linda Chezem had reviewed the opposition's claims about the bill's implications at the group's request and found them to be "far-fetched."
Democratic state Rep. Pat Bauer of South Bend, who cast the House panel's only vote against the bill, said he felt the House Judiciary Committee should have assessed the legal implications of its wording.
The earliest the House will hear Yoder's bill on second reading is Thursday, said Tory Flynn, a spokeswoman for Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma.
Republican Rep. Don Lehe of Brookston, who chairs the House agriculture committee and is sponsoring Yoder's bill in the House, said he expects questions will be raised about the bill's language during the full House debate.
Lehe said his reading of the bill is that it would still allow judges "total latitude" in deciding lawsuits that involve agricultural operations and wouldn't protect farmers who are breaking the law.
But, he said, it might help sway judges in close decisions involving lawsuits.
"The most you can say is that in a situation where the judge says 'You know, this is a toss up,' it gives him encouragement — it doesn't mandate — it just would encourage the judge to side with the farmer," he said.