Two rule types aim to protect livelihood
When Missouri voters prepared to cast ballots on a right-to-farm measure, producer Chris Chinn educated her neighbors.
Chinn’s family runs a 1,500-sow hog operation near Clarence in addition to raising cattle and row crops, and their neighbors include a St. Louis family that has a home located in the country.
“We had that relationship built, so when they wanted answers, they knew who to call,” Chinn recalls.
A right-to-farm initiative in Missouri led Chris Chinn to educate neighbors. “We need to continue to operate our farm so we can produce healthy food for our family and for our neighbors’ families,” she says.
For her, the story illustrates the value of state right-to-farm legislation to consumers and producers. She says they protect consumer choice by allowing farmers to grow crops and livestock in a variety of ways, including conventional and organic.
More broadly, right-to-farm legislation represents a network of state-level initiatives aimed at protecting an array of farm practices.
Top operators should consider how such new and existing legislation can protect financial returns as well as guard their business for future generations of managers.
Right-to-farm laws come in two varieties, says Rusty Rumley, senior staff attorney at the National Ag Law Center. The oldest type began to form in the 1970s and 1980s and can be found in all 50 states.
“Urban sprawl is kind of what got the ball rolling,” Rumley explains. “It’s meant to provide a defense from nuisance lawsuits brought on by farmers’ neighbors.”
Two Approaches. In general, states where agriculture accounts for a larger portion of the economy have stronger right-to-farm nuisance laws. Those include Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. Rules typically apply to operations in place for several years or longer than the neighbor bringing the lawsuit has lived in the area.
“If people move in and sue for nuisances, such as odors, lights or noise, the farmer will have the state right-to-farm statute to use as a defense so long as they meet the requirements,” Rumley says.
The second type of right-to-farm law typically deals with the use of certain types of farming practices or to protect agriculture in general. In 2012, North Dakota became the first state to successfully approve a constitutional measure protecting farmers’ right to use modern practices and technology by popular vote. The measure landed on the ballot in response to efforts by the Humane Society of the U.S. to ban gestation crates at hog facilities. Missouri’s initiative followed in 2014.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma will seek a ballot initiative in November 2016.
“This has been a priority issue of the members of Oklahoma Farm Bureau for about three years now,” says Tom Buchanan, president of the state’s Farm Bureau and a producer of cotton, wheat and cattle in the southwest part of the state. “We’re just seeing what we believe to be an overreach of not only federal regulations but also some activist groups that need to be curtailed.”
He thinks recent events such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the U.S. announcement and anti-GMO legislation introduced in Oklahoma during the 2015 session mean now is an opportune time to act.
The Oklahoma measure is unique, he notes, in that it would cede power to the people of Oklahoma to prevent ag activity in cases where there is a “compelling state interest” to block a particular technology or production practice. It’s likely those decisions would be left to regulatory agencies such as the state department of agriculture or the water board.
Time Will Tell. Yet the tangible outcome on the new style of right-to-farm laws remains to be sorted out. “Most constitutional amendments are vaguely worded,” Rumley says. “It’s kind of like freedom of the press. What does that mean? We’ve had court cases over the past couple hundred years that put boundaries on freedom of the press, and we will have case law come down.”
Alternately, states may protect farmers by limiting county-level restrictions as well as individual lawsuits. For example, Oregon has approved a state law that forbids bans on GMO crops, Rumley says.
Peace Of Mind. Across the country in southern Florida, dairy producer Jacob Larson hasn’t had to invoke the state’s right-to-farm encroachment rules. Nonetheless, it’s some comfort to know they exist.
“It allows us to continue our normal agriculture practices and allows us to continue our business even when urban areas grow close to farms,” says Larson, whose family milks several thousand cows across multiple farms in rural Okeechobee.
In Missouri, hog producer Chinn plans to remain active in outreach about modern farming practices. As states assess farming rules, only time will reveal how the laws affect farmers’ bottom lines.
To find resources and links to help make your voice heard on key issues facing farmers, visit agweb.com/agriculture-challenge
Factors Judges Examine in Right-To-Farm Nuisance Lawsuits
Right-to-farm laws protecting farmers from neighbor complaints originate from the common law of nuisance, says Doug Farquhar of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Nuisance laws forbid individuals from using their property in a way that causes harm to others,” Farquhar points out. “A private nuisance refers to an activity that interferes with an individual’s reasonable use or enjoyment of their property. A public nuisance is an activity that threatens the public health, safety or welfare
or damages community resources such as public roads, parks and water supplies.”
A successful nuisance lawsuit means a judge can issue an injunction, provide financial compensation to the aggrieved party or both.
These criteria help judges weigh nuisance complaints against farms, explains Doug Farquhar of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Degree of Harm. Is it continuous or sporadic? Is it a threat to health or simply a minor annoyance?
Social Value. What value do state and local law place on farming, as well as on the type of neighboring use that has been harmed?
Suitability. How compatible are the competing uses of a location identified in a nuisance complaint relative to the site’s character?
Ease Of Avoidance. How easily can a neighbor avoid the harm in question? To what degree might the farmer prevent or minimize the undesirable external effects of his or her operation?