What Is the “Right to Farm” and Who Has It?

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A few years ago, while driving through rural Washington County, New York—a picturesque area that has attracted retirees and city-weary escapees—I noticed a sign declaring it a "right to farm" area. A city person myself until recently, it struck me as strange that anyone would feel the need to declare such an obvious right, kind of like insisting on the right to practice accounting or teach piano lessons. Clearly, I hadn't spent a lot of time around farms, or understood the conflicts that can arise when city folk start moving into farm country and imposing their city standards.

Say Old MacDonald had a neighbor. And that neighbor didn't appreciate the constant "oink oink" here and "moo moo" there coming from Old MacDonald's farm—not to mention the wafting chemicals, noisy machinery operated at all hours and the ever-present stink of animal flatulence.

Assuming the farm was there first, that neighbor had better get used to it. Since the 1970s, all 50 states have enacted some version of "right to farm" statutes, which protect farmers from being considered a nuisance by new neighbors if they weren't a nuisance before. Some areas (like the one where I saw the sign) have also enacted local ordinances. Although they vary slightly from place to place, they share a motivation: to help preserve farmland in the face of encroaching suburbia. Before the statutes, some farms were forced to shut or change their operations, or spend large sums defending themselves against lawsuits. As the bumper stickers say, No Farms No Food.

But some people think the laws go too far. Idaho is considering a stronger version of its right to farm law that critics say favors big agribusiness and could support environmentally damaging practices. A small-scale hay farmer quoted in the Idaho Press-Tribune called it a "right to pollute" act, saying, "it does nothing to protect small family farmers." Others complained that it prevents neighbors from seeking recourse when a farm expands or begins offensive practices that make their homes unlivable—as happened to one family who said they could no longer stomach their tap water after a neighboring farm began dumping onions near their water source.

Supporters of the bill, including the newspaper's editorial board, say that farming is a vital industry and should take precedence over the sensibilities of neighbors. "Cow poop stinks, folks," the editorial asserts. "Tractors make noise. Expect to smell and hear them if you live near agricultural land. It’s not reasonable to expect otherwise."

Lately, a new development has flipped the scenario: what happens when it's farmers encroaching on urban areas? With the advent of the urban farming movement, the culture clash is occasionally going the other way. Many cities have enacted livestock bans; to some people, pre-dawn rooster crowing and barn smells are more offensive than car alarms and rotting garbage.

Novella Carpenter, whose book Farm City describes how she raised veggies and animals on squatted property in her scruffy Oakland, California, neighborhood, recently ran into zoning trouble, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. She now owns the property and sells some of her surplus produce, but a neighbor who didn't care for her raising rabbits turned her in for operating without a permit. The permit would probably cost more than the couple thousand dollars she makes as an urban farmer.

"Why am I even trying? Why not just move to the country and do whatever I want?" Carpenter wrote on her blog, before answering her own questions. "I'll tell you why: I love Oakland.... And, at the same time, I love keeping animals and growing vegetables."

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