Farm Bureau and Property Rights

One would think that of all people farmers, who make their living off the land, would respect private property rights and want to protect them. For many farmers that may be the case, but it would be naive to think that it is true of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

In recent news stories, it has been reported that the Farm Bureau supports efforts by Democrat Governor Ted Kulongoski and Democrat leaders in the state legislature to suspend voter-approved Measure 37, which is arguably the most important property rights measure to pass in this country in decades. (Measure 37 requires government to compensate property owners for any loss in value caused by a government imposed restriction on the use of their land, or remove the restriction. It passed with 61 percent of the vote.)

The Farm Bureau says it supports suspending implementation of Measure 37, because it wants to limit development in rural areas to make more land available for farming. Well, folks, that’s only part of the story. In reality however, like with most issues, the Farm Bureau’s position on Measure 37 is just about money. In fact, they told me so.

When I was the Republican nominee for governor in 1998, I met with the Oregon Farm Bureau at their state headquarters in Salem, hopelessly seeking their endorsement. In that meeting, I talked to them about property rights and about changing Oregon’s land use laws to allow people who own property in the country to build a house on their land. The leaders of the Farm Bureau made it crystal clear to me that day that they did not support such a move.

Frankly, I was shocked by their response. They informed me that if someone owned 10 or 20 or 40 acres in the country, and the laws were changed so they could build a home on their land, that 10 or 20 or 40-acre parcel would instantly be worth a lot more money than if no home could be built on it. Their expressed position was: Farmers have a right to expand their business just like any other businessman does. They told me that if people could not build a house on their land, then farmers could buy it from them cheaper, because there really isn’t much else the owners could do with it, except sell it.

From a ruthless business perspective, I am sure the Oregon Farm Bureau is exactly right. Morally, however, their position is reprehensible.

Even to this day, I remember clearly how I responded to their stated position. I asked them if I understood their position correctly, that indeed what they wanted to do was to use the power of government to stop other people from being able to use their land, so farmers could buy it cheaper. Incredibly, they acknowledged that I had correctly stated their position.

The Oregon Farm Bureau may claim they want to preserve farmland, but what they mean by that is they don’t want people to be able to build a house on their land, because then farmers can’t buy it for an artificially low price. Pretty much everyone familiar with real estate knows that a 10-acre parcel that you can build a house on is worth probably two to five times as much as a 10-acre parcel that you can’t.

It should be noted that Oregon has a Right to Farm law that prohibits people, who choose to build a home in a farm zone, from suing over such things as farm noise, too much dust, or the spraying of pesticides. Therefore, avoiding such complaints cannot be the primary reason why the Farm Bureau wants to keep people from building a residence in the country.

In all fairness, it should also be noted that not all farmers are working to undermine private property rights. In fact, some of the county farm bureaus enthusiastically supported Measure 37 and unlike the state bureau continue to do so.

As the author of Measure Seven, the voter-approved 2000 measure that started the modern day property rights revival in Oregon, I can say with conviction that the problem with Measure 37 is not that it is all that ambiguous. The problem is this: The powers that be, the governor, most of the Democrats in the legislature, most of the judges on our appellate courts, and most of the cities and counties in the state don’t like the measure and are throwing out every red herring and setting off every smokescreen they can to stall implementation of it until they can find a way to get rid of it.

The people spoke, twice in fact, and the politicians are still saying they aren’t sure what the people intended. They understand, alright. They just don’t like what they heard. You can rest assured the powers that be wouldn’t be so “confused”, if they liked what the people had said, when they passed Measure 37 by an overwhelming margin.