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Your Neighbors' Right to Farm

It may sound idyllic to move to the countryside if you've been living in noisy, dirty cities all of your life. But it pays to know exactly what you're getting yourself into.

Many urbanites are surprised when their idyllic notions of the countryside are replaced with real pesticide clouds. They are taken aback by the actual smell of manure and noisy farm machinery. They are even more surprised when they find out there's very little they can do about animal feeding operations and other rustic activities.

Under right-to-farm laws, your neighbors in the countryside will likely be able to keep disturbing you with the realities of farm life. You can complain, but the law is on their side. As a part of zoning laws that pertain to bucolic spaces, farmers are entitled to engage in farming activities. They have autonomy over farm management practices.

If your new neighbors are engaged in agricultural operations to make a living, they won't risk their livelihoods to appease you. Any delicate sensibilities you may have around country life and agricultural land will not take precedence.

Possible Remedies for Nuisance Neighbors in the Countryside

You could attempt to file nuisance lawsuits if your neighbors' land use disturbs you. But ordinances in rural settings typically protect the kinds of activities that might offend those from urban spaces. The presence of manure and loud farming equipment will likely be protected as agricultural uses of land. Property owners who use their acreage as farmland and engage in agricultural practices will be shielded in many ways from nuisance lawsuits.

However, if the neighbor encroaches on your space, and their conduct constitutes a private nuisance, you might have legal recourse. The laws governing this subject can vary dramatically from one state to the next. If you're dealing with this issue, it's best to contact a lawyer. Agricultural law can be very difficult to navigate on your own.

Depending on where you live, a nuisance action may or may not prevail. Even in the countryside, you have property rights that may entitle you to quiet enjoyment of the land. But your neighbors may be protected in the same way as well.

The Right to Farm

In the 1970s, some states passed the nation's first right-to-farm laws. These acts began shielding farms from nuisance lawsuits filed by their neighbors. Since that time, all states in the U.S. have granted their farmers a legal right to farm.

With right-to-farm statutes protecting them, farms across the United States are shielded from many nuisance lawsuits. If the farmer in question is in an agricultural area that they own, they are protected against such lawsuits.

But to qualify as a farmer, a person must be operating a business that produces a certain number of agricultural products. Even if your neighbor claims a right to farm, they may still not qualify for protection under the statute. It's important to contact a lawyer if you're in such a situation.

These state laws let people farm without fear of being sued for everyday farm activities. This means you often cannot sue a farm because it creates an unpleasant smell or because its tractors kick up dust that blows onto your property.

The Right to Farm and Nuisance Laws

To better grasp the right to farm, it helps to understand the concept of nuisance laws. It's also important to know the scope of what constitutes farming under the law. Farming activity goes beyond the production of meat, eggs, dairy, and crops. Aquaculture — farming fish and other aquatic organisms, such as seaweed — is protected, too. And nuisance claims about putrid (if nutrient-rich) fertilizers or loud livestock may be barred by right-to-farm laws.

Nuisance laws are among the oldest forms of common law. They enable you to sue another party who is interfering with your right to enjoy your property. Such types of interference typically include:

  • Smells
  • Sounds
  • Pollution
  • Other hazards that extend beyond the other party's property boundaries

As agriculture grew in scope in the 1980s to "mega" farms, more and more people brought nuisance lawsuits against these large agricultural operations. The loud sound of heavy machinery, the pungent smell of livestock, and the use of pesticides were the most common causes for lawsuits. Many farms were shut down by court order as a result of these lawsuits. In response, a "right to farm" was created.

Now, nuisance complaints are treated differently. North Carolina amended its Right to Farm Act to include additional types of land-use industries such as forestry. Many other states have made similar amendments. As a result, even more farms are shielded from nuisance lawsuits. It's now harder to obtain relief by legal means if farming activities create a nuisance. It's also more difficult to obtain damages, including punitive damages, under such circumstances.

Ask Around Before You Buy

The right to farm and what it allows varies greatly from state to state, so check into local laws before you move. Be aware that many states treat existing residents differently from newcomers. Those who've been there a long time often have many more rights, whereas new arrivals are considered to have "moved to the nuisance." As a transplant to rural life, you may be afforded considerably less protection.

If you are planning on moving to an area that has a significant agricultural industry, it pays to really investigate the area before moving. Realize, though, that some farming practices are seasonal. That means even a physical inspection may not reveal any potential problems if you go at the wrong time. Ask a potential real estate agent, check with local farming groups, and find out from neighbors if there have been any problems in the past. Find out whether there are seasonal farming practices that may crop up later.

If You Are Having Trouble With a Farm

There are three potential sources of help if you're experiencing a problem with a neighboring farm. First is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which issues regulations for farms, farm products, and farming practices.

The second possible source is your state commissioner of agriculture and any county farm agents your area may have.

The final source to investigate is your state department of agriculture or health department. These offices typically receive complaints and can offer guidance on whether the farming practice causing you trouble is legal.

With right-to-farm laws in place, local governments are less likely to take nuisance lawsuits against farmers seriously. This is true regardless of where you live, whether it's near an apple orchard in Michigan or a free-range chicken pasture in California. Generally speaking, farm operations are protected from nuisance suits.

To find out more about your options, get in touch with a local agricultural lawyer who can help you parse the details.

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