Right-to farm laws help at the local level as farmers learn

BALTIMORE -- Imitating state laws, some town and county governments in New York are reaffirming the practice of farming by enacting right-to-farm laws. The long-term practical effects of such laws are unclear, but farmers are also learning better strategies for getting along with their neighbors, a Cornell University agricultural economist says.

"Some New York dairymen, for example, make periodic mass mailings to neighbors to invite feedback on their farming practices," said Nelson Bills, Cornell professor of agricultural economics. "They even announce such upcoming events as pesticide/herbicide applications or land applications of stored livestock wastes." Bills explained the evolving, complex scenario faced by farmers and non-farm neighbors in a talk, "Agricultural Districts, Right-to-Farm Laws and Related Legislation" at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting today (Feb. 11) in Baltimore, at a session on Preservation of Farmland and Open Space in the Northeast.

With urbanites moving to the suburban hinterlands, complaints about noise, odor, dust, vibrations and agricultural chemicals can increase. New neighbors offended by such common farm by-products sometimes use the courts to seek remedy for nuisance complaints against farmers and farm practices. Bills said that 48 states have enacted right-to- farm laws to give farmers more support in legal disputes that allege that farmers are creating a private nuisance.

Bills believes that state right-to-farm laws have less force if they can be compromised or voided altogether by lower levels of government. Several state laws deal with such possibilities. Yet not all of these states attempt to circumvent any local efforts to regulate objectionable farming practices through the enactment of local laws or ordinances. Rather, some state laws explicitly allow for right-to-farm protections to be superseded by local regulation or ordinance.

In these cases, Bills explained that some state-level right- to-farm laws appear to be superfluous in these cases because local governments can regulate agricultural nuisances under their zoning and other police powers.

"This may or may not help explain the apparent proliferation of local right-to-farm laws," he said. "Thus, hundreds of towns and counties could be targeted for pro-agriculture, right-to-farm legislation."

There is little, if any, comprehensive evidence on the rate of occurrence of legal disputes among the total population of commercial farm businesses in some regions of the country, according to Bills. Even less is known about the texture of such disputes and just where farm practices thought to be a nuisance might fit in with other concerns between neighbors or whether allegations that statutes governing water quality have been violated. As a result, the impetus for right-to- farm law has been propelled by anecdote and discussion of a few high profile court cases.

Bills explained that the situation is easily attenuated in farming locales situated near large and/or expanding urban population cores. New residents in these areas typically are several generations removed from agriculture and do not have a working knowledge of the cultural and husbandry practices used on nearby farms.

"This anecdotal evidence, however, does suggest that, not unlike other segments of American society, farm operators and their neighbors increasingly turn to the courts to resolve controversies over land use," Bills said.