LINCOLN — Leaders of six major farm organizations have joined forces to declare property tax reform, not constitutional protection for a “right to farm,” as the key priority for keeping Nebraska agriculture strong.

The Nebraska Ag Leaders Working Group released a statement Wednesday saying that any effort to enact right-to-farm protections should be done in state law, not the state constitution.

The group also said that other issues are more important to the “viability and growth” of agriculture.

“We are united in our belief that protecting our members’ interests and the future of agriculture isn’t about a single ballot measure or initiative,” said Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president.

He said the joint statement was the product of considerable research and discussion among the six groups in recent weeks.

The statement represents a change of heart for most of them — and a major hurdle for future efforts to enact a right-to-farm proposal.

During the recent legislative session, four of the six backed a right-to-farm measure introduced by State Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell.

The four were the Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Pork Producers Association and Nebraska Soybean Association.

The Farm Bureau took a neutral position, but raised several questions about the measure’s potential effects.

Legislative Resolution 378CA made it out of committee but faced a filibuster and was tabled for the year.

On Wednesday, Kuehn said he plans to keep pushing for a constitutional amendment despite the six groups’ lack of support.

He said it could take several years and several versions of a right-to-farm proposal to get something passed. But he argued that a state law would not offer enough protection because it could be changed by the next Legislature. “We will work through the process of what seems best,” Kuehn said.

A spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, who had backed the right-to-farm proposal this year, offered a more noncommittal response to the ag leaders’ statement.

“Gov. Ricketts continues to support agriculture as an industry against outside extremist groups that oppose animal agriculture and spread misinformation about ag technology,” said Taylor Gage, while adding that the governor has heard about the priority of property tax relief.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which is sometimes at odds with those involved in the new working group, praised their new statement.

He said the Nebraska Farmers Union had opposed Kuehn’s right-to-farm measure and, like other ag groups, considers property tax reform its top priority.

“These are the guys who are usually on the opposite side of us on all the corporate farming issues,” he said. “I am very pleased they have taken what we believe is an appropriate position.”

Nelson said the new working group represents a new venture by the six organizations, which have often worked together but never developed joint policy positions.

He said a couple of major concerns led to their position on right-to-farm protection.

First, ag leaders from states that have passed or considered right-to-farm protections urged extreme caution with such measures, he said. They warned that constitutional amendments must be worded carefully to avoid unintended consequences, which are difficult to correct.

“All the way across the board, we were cautioned to go slow on the issue,” Nelson said.

Right-to-farm measures passed in North Dakota in 2012 and Missouri in 2014. Voters will weigh in on a measure in Oklahoma in November.

Secondly, he said, the Nebraska leaders concluded that other issues are more pressing for farmers, ranchers and livestock feeders, and attempting to pass right-to-farm protection would take away from efforts to address those concerns.

“Our efforts are targeted to immediate challenges, such as making sure high property tax burdens aren’t the reason families are pushed out of agriculture,” Nelson said.

Barb Cooksley, president of Nebraska Cattlemen, said other concerns include access to new technology and biotechnology, sound regulations and better communication with customers.

According to their statement, the ag leaders’ goal will be to work together in addressing those concerns, along with opposing “anti-agriculture and non-scientific legislative, regulatory and public relations agendas intended to impose unsubstantiated animal rights, environment or social codes” on agriculture and agri-business.

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