Learn Your State’s Right to Farm Law: You Might Need It

Some urban and suburban people who move to the country file complaints against existing farming operations. If one comes your way, your state's law might protect you.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Sean Hoyer/Flickr

As farmers, we know the appeal of rural America. Country living is less noisy and polluted, more peaceful and nurturing for the soul. Constellations shine clearly in the night sky, the landscapes stretch out endlessly, and the chirping of birds, frogs and crickets create the world’s most magical music.

So we understand why, even though metropolitan areas are growing more quickly than rural ones, large numbers of urban dwellers leave city life behind for the tranquility of the countryside. With the additional appeal of multiple recreational offerings—hiking, fishing, mountain biking, boating and more—it’s no surprise that many farmers are finding that their new neighbors are city transplants.

The Potential for Culture Clash

What surprises farmers, however, is the negative attitude that some of these transplants hold toward agriculture and rural life itself. Some of these new residents spend endless hours mowing and maintaining their acreage, transforming it to a lush suburban lawn. They hire exterminators to eradicate lady bugs, box elders and other insects common to the country. Some even treat their farming neighbors as if they were bumpkins and yokels, uneducated pests that threaten their idyllic pastoral experience.

Unfortunately, these former urbanites sometimes take more aggressive measures to safeguard their new lifestyle. They file complaints with municipalities, claiming livestock smells and noises disrupting the enjoyment of their property. They cite agricultural outbuildings, vehicles and equipment as unsightly blight. Some even go so far as to file lawsuits against their farming neighbors, declaring that agricultural activities and operations are nuisances that should be discontinued—even though these transplants knew they were moving in next door to a farm.

Enter the Smiths

There was no way that the Smiths (not their real names) could have missed the seven-foot-tall FMA Farms sign at the entrance to our driveway. We gave them a warm welcome, complete with farm-fresh eggs. We helped them when they accidentally knocked down a nest full of newly hatched barn swallows. We waved at them whenever they were out riding their mower. We always greeted them whenever we encountered them running errands in town.

Suddenly, for reasons we have yet to discover, their demeanor toward us changed drastically. Over the next couple of years, the Smiths resorted to multiple measures—some of them extreme—to demonstrate their displeasure with our poultry farm. Finally, last summer, we received an official notice from our township’s ordinance director, informing us that a complaint against our farm had been filed. Our farm emitted “noisome odors” and our roosters generated too much noise. We had 10 days in which to get rid of all the roosters on our farm and to clean up our property so that it didn’t stink.

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We were beside ourselves. For starters, our farm didn’t smell, unless you stuck your nose in our compost pile, which was located more than two acres away from the Smiths’ house. More importantly, getting rid of our roosters meant putting us out of business. FMA Farms is a breeding farm. Without our boys, we wouldn’t be able to produce the heritage chicks and ducklings that form the base of our business. Within minutes of receiving that notice, I was on the phone with our state’s Department of Agriculture, requesting a right to farm review and determination.

What Is the Right to Farm Law?

In a nation with such a strong agricultural history, one might believe that anyone who so desired would have the right to farm. This right to farm, however, refers to laws that protect farmers in agriculturally or rurally zoned areas from grievances and lawsuits filed by newcomers. Before the existence of the right to farm statute, farmers frequently found themselves caught up in expensive, exhausting court battles that often ended up costing the farmers their savings and livelihood, even if they won the legal fight. Over the years, more protections were put in place to protect farmers and agricultural practices and end to the clashes between established farmers and new residents.

If your farming activities have drawn negative reactions from a neighbor or a notice from your township, the few minutes it takes you to contact your state’s Department of Agriculture to inquire about right to farm protection can save you months of stress and aggravation.

“All 50 states have enacted right-to-farm laws that seek to protect qualifying farmers and ranchers from nuisance lawsuits filed by individuals who move into a rural area where normal farming operations exist,” write Elizabeth Rumley and Kyle Weldon for the National Agricultural Law Center.

The two have compiled a map where users can click on any state to see a summary of that jurisdiction’s right to farm law.

Using this and other resources, you can research to understand what protections may apply to you. Qualifying for a right to farm determination typically involves a property inspection and an interview to learn of your agricultural and management practices, especially your manure management systems. Evaluation of your situation can take several weeks; be sure to alert your township that you are being assessed, as this usually suspends the notice of complaint until your evaluation is complete.

For us, requesting a right to farm determination was the right move. Exactly one week later, the Department of Agriculture determined that we were fully protected by our state statute. The official who contacted me with the legal determination for our farm also notified our township. We can only assume that the ordinance director informed the Smiths of the ruling. The Smiths never bothered us again. In fact, they listed their property for sale and moved away. Our new neighbors, the Joneses, are longtime country people who plan to breed animals, leave their acreage natural and enjoy some of our fresh eggs from time to time. We look forward to a long, positive relationship.

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