It is January, and that means elected officials in Washington and in State Capitols around the nation will be returning to their chambers full of great new ideas that they feel need to become laws. Many stem from the perception that there is a problem that needs a law to resolve. Quite a few of these will have a direct impact on agriculture because, despite the fact that agriculture is already one of the most highly regulated sectors of the economy, there are people who think more laws are needed to keep farmers and food producers in line.
One of the key issues in the Indiana General Assembly as it gets back into session is farmland. Several competing forces are striving to wrestle control of the land out of the hands of the farmers who own it. Environmental groups want to control what is grown on it; nearby cities want to annex it and state government wants to tax it. When farmers join together to try to protect their land, they are called “the big ag lobby.”
Across the state, cities both large and small, facing a declining tax base, are forcibly annexing large tracts of farmland. This is not being done to grow their agricultural base, but rather to boost their sagging tax revenues and gain more land for housing or corporate development. Outnumbered politically, farmland owners wake up one morning to find out they have been swallowed up by a nearby city or town. Then the taxes go up and the zoning restrictions begin.
Speaking of zoning restrictions, Indiana’s growing livestock sector is facing more and more zoning battles. In Jackson County, neighbors who lost a local zoning battle to stop expansion of a hog operation have turned to the media to generate unfavorable publicity. In North Central Indiana, two counties are fighting over who should have jurisdiction over an expansion dispute.
In an effort to provide some protection for producers, State Senator Jean Leising introduced Senate Bill 249 which would prevent a county, municipality, or township “from adopting an ordinance, resolution, rule, policy or other requirement” that prohibits building any livestock structure, so long as it’s to be built in an area zoned for agriculture and the operator follows state laws. Leising, a trained nurse and pork producer, says the livestock sector needs clear and consistent local guidelines on where they can operate, “Animal agriculture has been a big part of Indiana, and so the state needs to at least know this is going on.”
Of course the state’s largest environmental organization, with a record of opposing livestock operations, is fighting back against this proposal. Attorney Kim Ferraro, the Hoosier Environmental Council’s water and agriculture policy director, says the bill could block any local oversight of what she calls “factory farms”. The Leising bill does not supersede local zoning ordinances but rather attempts to take some of the emotion out of those decisions, something HEC does not want to see happen. Leising noted that various counties across the state have sought moratoriums on new livestock barn construction.
Katarina Hall with Indiana Farm Bureau said one of the top legislative priorities for the organization this session is to block forced annexation by local government. IFB is also working with lawmakers to try and come up with a tax formula on farmland that is reasonable and affordable.
Indiana is fortunate to have a current administration that is very pro-growth for agriculture. Unfortunately, we also have some local and county governments that see farming as a nuisance. It is important that farmers remain vigilant and proactive to protect their land and their rights to farm it.
By Gary Truitt