Hot-Button Issues: Down on the Farm

Are Indiana’s livestock producers under attack—or just paranoid?

Editor’s Note: From gay marriage to Glenda Ritz, Obamacare to Sunday booze, we’re presenting 10 topics that Hoosiers will be fired up about this year—and what you need to know before jumping into heated cocktail-party discussions. See the full list here.

According to the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, the Hoosier livestock industry makes more than $2.5 billion a year and “has seen growth in almost every livestock sector.” But for a group that’s doing so well, animal-farmers sure seem defensive. Last February, the state Senate quietly passed SB 373—a bill supported by the Indiana Farm Bureau, an industry lobbying group—that would make it illegal to take pictures or video recordings of industrial-scale livestock operations without the consent of the owners. The intent was to protect farms from radical, enterprising animal-rights activists. When the so-called “Ag-Gag” bill landed in the House, however, it kicked off a barnyard brawl, not only among animal groups, but also with free-speech defenders, organized labor, and environmentalists—all of whom crowded the Statehouse to raise a squawk. Amid the uproar, the House Speaker sent the bill to a study committee, and it didn’t go up for a vote.
Another ag measure, SJR-7, followed a similar trajectory. Titled (innocuously, if misleadingly) The Constitutional Right to Hunt and Fish, the amendment would have safeguarded the freedom to “engage in the agricultural or commercial production of meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products,” putting the practice on par with such fundamental liberties as religious worship and making it the only industry besides the press to enjoy such protection—and, consequently, all but lifting livestock producers above regulation. It passed in 2011, and again made it out of the Senate last February, before most lawmakers even realized the “hunt and fish” amendment contained farming language. When House Speaker Brian Bosma learned of the far-reaching implications of the resolution (described by The Indianapolis Star as “lipstick on a pig farm”) last year, he assigned it to the Judiciary Committee, where it remained.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, who introduced a new “Ag-Gag” bill in the 2014 session … Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who sponsored SB 373 and SJR-7 in 2013 and introduced a newly worded Right to Hunt and Fish amendment in January … Farm Bureau lobbyist Justin SchneiderKim Ferraro, lobbyist and agricultural-policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, and Erin Huang, state director of the Indiana chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, who have both worked to kill the measures … Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where both proposals will likely be assigned again this year.

   Brent Steele         Brian Bosma

Players: (l-r) Steele, Bosma


Versions of both measures were introduced in January, and opposition efforts will likely heat up when they come up again in House committee, likely in February.

A watered-down version of Ag-Gag that would strengthen penalties against trespassing rather than criminalize pictures and video recording—a compromise meant to induce the Hoosier Press Association to drop its opposition—has a good chance of passing both chambers of the Assembly. But Right to Hunt and Fish was thought to have consequences so profound—like potentially overriding environmental regs and local ordinances banning factory-scale animal farms, or “CAFOs,” inside city limits—that Steele relented and, in January, introduced a new Right to Hunt and Fish measure without the farming language, resetting the timetable on the amendment-approval process.

During last year’s Ag-Gag debate, out-of-town notables including game-show host Bob Barker, No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, and national political pundit Mary Matalin sent letters to Bosma expressing their opposition.

@INFarmBureau / @HoosierAgToday / @HEC_ED / @StatehouseFile / @MatthewLTully

Photo of pig via Thinkstock
A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue. Reporting by IM executive editor Evan West.