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N.D. enshrines rights for farmers

Amendment to constitution draws attention

BISMARCK, N.D. — Voters in heavily agriculture-dependent North Dakota became the first to enshrine the right to farm in their state constitution, a move that some say could have far-reaching effects on genetic modification, land use, and the way animals are raised.

The amendment approved Tuesday guarantees the right of farmers to engage in ‘‘modern’’ agriculture and bars any law limiting their right ‘‘to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production, and ranching practices.’’

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Supporters said it was broadly worded to protect farmers far into the future. But critics complained it was too vague, and officials in North Dakota said this week that they are not sure what the new right really means, how long it will take to define it, or whether it would survive a court challenge. Another big question is whether other states will follow.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau collected signatures to get the amendment on the ballot after the Humane Society of the United States unsuccessfully pushed a measure two years ago to abolish fenced hunting preserves in North Dakota. Farm groups in other states also had become concerned about the Humane Society and other animal welfare organizations pushing laws to ban small crates for chickens and pregnant pigs, and what they saw as a heavier hand with federal regulation under President Obama.

Farmers pushed back with social media campaigns designed to sway public opinion and promote their own initiatives, such as a law passed earlier this year in Iowa that makes it a crime to lie on a job application to get access to a farm to record video of animal abuse.

North Dakota’s constitutional amendment takes farm protection a step further.

‘‘It’s going to give us a big leg up on special interest groups that come in from outside and want to tell us what to do and what not to do,’’ said Doyle Johannes, president of the state Farm Bureau.

The amendment passed with two-thirds of the vote Tuesday, the same day voters in California rejected a measure calling for labeling on food products containing genetically modified ingredients. Farm groups also saw that proposal as an attack on agriculture because some of the nation’s most important crops, such as corn, are mainly grown with genetically engineered seeds.

Joe Maxwell, a vice president with the Humane Society, said he would not be surprised if North Dakota’s constitutional amendment sparked similar efforts in other states.

One reason the amendment did so well in North Dakota is probably the big role agriculture plays in the state economy. North Dakota leads the nation in the production of eight commodities, from spring wheat to honey and navy beans, and it is among the top five producers of 15 crops.

But not everyone thinks the amendment is a good idea. The North Dakota Farmers Union, the state’s other main farmer group, opposed it, saying it was too broad and could trump important local and state laws, such as those dealing with zoning and water drainage.

‘‘It’s probably going to have to be challenged at some point through the court system, and we believe it will be at some point,’’ president Woody Barth said.

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