"A couple of years from now, we might say this was the beginning of the trend," said Rusty Rumley, a senior staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas. But "we really don't even know what they're going to mean."
Animal advocates and other groups are increasingly urging consumers, grocers and restaurants to pay as much attention to how their food is raised as to how it tastes. Their goals include trying to curtail what they consider cruel methods of raising livestock and unsafe ways of growing food.
Those efforts are helping to fuel the right-to-farm movement in the Midwest, where the right has already won approval in North Dakota and Indiana. It goes next to Missouri voters in an Aug. 5 election. Similar measures passed both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature earlier this year before dying in a conference committee. And they could soon spread elsewhere.
The uncertainty surrounding the proposals stems from the vague wording of the measures, which have yet to be tested in court.
Missouri's proposed constitutional amendment asks voters whether the right "to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed."
Indiana's new measure — which was written into state law but not enshrined in the constitution— protects the rights of farmers to use "generally accepted" practices, including "the use of ever-changing technology." The North Dakota measure prohibits any law that "abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices."
Supporters hope the wording provides a legal shield against initiatives that would restrict particular farming methods, such as those modeled after a California law setting minimum cage space for hens or policies in Florida and Ohio that bar tight pens for pregnant pigs. Others hope to pre-empt any proposals to ban genetically modified crops similar to ones recently passed in southern Oregon.
"Agriculture's had a lot folks that's been trying to come down on our farms and tell us what we can and cannot do," said Neal Bredehoeft, a corn and soybean farmer who supports the Missouri measure. He added: "This gives us a little bit of protection."
Bredehoeft gave $100 to the political group backing Missouri's ballot measure. His money is being mixed with five-figure checks from the state corn and pork associations, the Farm Bureau and businesses with strong financial stakes in rural America, such as electric cooperatives and a farm-credit organization.
They're preparing for an advertising blitz against a coalition that includes the Humane Society of the United States, the Sierra Club and rural groups that have battled for decades against corporate hog and poultry operations.
Opponents fear the right-to-farm measures could be cited by corporate farms to escape unwanted regulations against pollution and unsanitary conditions.
"This is a fight in each state," said Joe Maxwell, a former Missouri lieutenant governor who is the Humane Society's vice president of outreach and engagement.
Stopping the proposals at the ballot box "sends a message: Don't waste your money," he added.
North Dakota voters approved their right-to-farm measure by a two-thirds vote in 2012 after a relatively low-profile campaign in which the North Dakota Farm Bureau spent $158,000 promoting the measure. Opponents spent little.
The state Farm Bureau pursued the initiative after the Humane Society of the United States unsuccessfully pushed a measure two years earlier to abolish fenced hunting preserves in North Dakota.