Refresher on Right-to-Farm Laws: What Do They Do

Updated: 5 days ago


Planting cover crops image by Edwin Remsberg
Planting cover crops image by Edwin Remsberg

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I often get asked questions about right-to-farm laws and how these laws operate. All 50 states have a version of a right-to-farm law that provides a defense against a nuisance action brought against an agricultural operation. The agricultural operation would need to meet the statutory requirements in the law to utilize the defense. If you want to know what your state’s right-to-farm law contains, check out these resources from the National Agricultural Law Center.

What is “Nuisance”?

A nuisance is a condition or activity that interferes with another’s use and enjoyment of their property. To determine a nuisance often requires courts to weigh various factors in deciding if the activity in question is a nuisance. For example, if a neighbor is claiming that an existing agricultural operation is a nuisance, a court may look at the suitability of the activity for the area, the suitability for the complaining party’s activity for the area, and a host of other factors to determine if the activity is actually a nuisance.

What is a Right-to-Farm Law?

As mentioned earlier, right-to-farm laws are statutory defenses to nuisance claims involving agricultural operations (and potentially other operations depending on how the law is drafted). To utilize this defense, the operation must make sure it meets the requirements laid out in the law. For example, in Delaware, the operation must be in existence for at least 1 year, comply with all applicable state and federal laws, regulations, and permits, and the nuisance must be the result of a change in condition to the locality. This last part typically means that the nuisance cannot be caused by the agricultural operation moving into the area but by other uses moving in. This could mean, for example, that the area the farm is located in is becoming more residential.

Spreading manure on a field.  Image by the Chesapeake Bay Program
Spreading manure on a field. Image by the Chesapeake Bay Program

Other state laws may include statutory definitions of what is considered an agricultural operation. The laws may layout a minimal level of practices that the operation must utilize. Typically, these are practices generally accepted by Extension, state soil conservation programs, or USDA. It is important to understand what the law in your state requires in order to make sure your operation will be protected.

If the agricultural operation meets the requirements, then the law will provide the operation with a defense to potential nuisance claims. Included in many of these laws are also attorneys’ fees provisions and other provisions enabling the agricultural operation to recover costs of defending itself. Maryland and Delaware’s laws do not contain such provisions.

Conclusion

Right-to-farm laws can provide powerful defenses for agricultural operations. It’s important for operators to understand how their state law operates early on to make sure the operation meets the requirements. If you have questions on Maryland’s law, check out Understanding Agricultural Liability: Maryland’s Right-to-Farm Law Can Limit Liability for Maryland Farm, Commercial Fishing, and Seafood Operators.