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How Right-to-Farm Laws Operate to Protect Ag Practices Used by Producers

How Right-to-Farm Laws Operate to Protect Ag Practices Used by Producers

Right-to-farm laws provide agricultural producers, forestry operations, and aquaculture producers a defense in a nuisance lawsuit under certain circumstances.  A 2022 Supreme Court of Mississippi decision highlights how the right-to-farm defense can protect agricultural operations.  In this case, two producers began using propane cannon scare guns to prevent deer from eating their cotton and soybean crops during summer. The propane cannons created loud noises, and the neighbors’ ensuing nuisance lawsuit tried to prevent the two producers from using the guns. The trial court agreed with the two producers that the state’s right-to-farm law barred the nuisance claim, and the Supreme Court of Mississippi recently upheld the trial court’s ruling in Briggs v. Hughes.

            On appeal, the neighbors argued that the Mississippi legislature did not create blanket protection for operations adding new practices on a farm, and the Court should look at when the practice began to be used.  The Court disagreed with this view of the state’s right-to-farm law.  The Court must only determine if an agricultural operation complies with all applicable state and federal permits and not when a new practice, such as a scare gun, was first used. 

            The Court then turned to the neighbors’ argument that using propane cannons was not a best management practice.  The neighbors argued that expert testimony demonstrated  propane cannons would become less effective over time and that propane cannons could not be a best practice because they are not always practical.  The court disagreed, relying on expert testimony showed the propane cannons were used appropriately for pest control, and the Court upheld the lower court’s finding.

            Importantly, each state’s right-to-farm statute is different in certain details.  With Mississippi’s law, the farm only needed to demonstrate that the operation complied with federal and state permits and that the practice was a best management practice. Here the producers’ use of scare guns adhered to the Mississippi law.  The analysis would have been different in states with different statutory provisions. Operations should pay attention to the language used in right-to-farm laws to ensure they can maintain the defense.

Goeringer, Paul. “How Right-to-Farm Laws Operate to Protect Ag Practices Used by Producers“. Southern Ag Today 2(25.5). June 17, 2022. Permalink

Fence Laws for Rural Landowners

Fence Laws for Rural Landowners

Questions regarding fence disputes are a regular inquiry at the National Agricultural Law Center.  For such a common issue, one would assume that this area of the law is relatively straightforward, but that is not always the case!   All fifty states have passed laws relating to fences and livestock running at large, but there are significant differences between the states and sometimes even within the same state.  For example, Texas is an “open range” state which means that livestock owners are not required to fence in their livestock; however, counties can, and have, adopted local stock laws that effectively close the range in those counties.  It can be very difficult to determine whether a Texas county has adopted a local stock law closing the open range in that county because older records are often hard to find and may not be found online. 

The confusing nature of fence laws causes numerous problems across the country, but a few general rules apply to most of the southern states.  If you have livestock, you typically have a duty to keep them on your property (except for some counties in Texas.)  What constitutes a legal fence is typically found in your state law, but the fence must be sufficient to keep your livestock on your own property.  The last area where significant questions arise covers maintaining and paying for the boundary fences between neighbors.  Once again, this area of the law is highly dependent on where your property is located.  It is dependent on the state, but some states have antiquated fence laws which further complicates the problem.  To read your state fence law, click here.  

If you do have a fence issue with your neighbor, the cheapest way for both parties to resolve the dispute is to come to an agreement that everyone can accept.  Fences are not cheap, but lawsuits will typically cost more in the long run.  

Source – the National Agricultural Law Center

Rumley, Rusty. “Fence Laws for Rural Landowners“. Southern Ag Today 2(24.5). June 10, 2022. Permalink

Verbal Farm Tenancy Protection in the South

Verbal Farm Tenancy Protection in the South

When one inherits or purchases an interest in open farmland – particularly between March and November in the South – chances are someone is growing crops or pasturing livestock on it. Often, there is no written agreement between landowner and farmer. Statistically we know that the majority of farm tenancies renew annually (ERS, 2016), which may support anecdotal observations that verbal farm tenancies are common. Such “handshake” agreements provide no written record of the bargain struck between landowner and farmer as to rent and term. For farmers working multiple parcels with different owners, keeping the bargains straight may pose a challenge. As land changes hands between owners due to inheritance or sale, questions emerge including the farmer’s rights to crops and fixtures, the apportionment of rent between successive owners, and circumstances of renewal. 

Given the relative vulnerability of the farmer in this equation, states’ landlord-tenant policies have evolved to provide farmer access rights through the harvesting and sale of their crop and its profits – known as emblements – in the event a landowner or successor tries to move them off and bar access. All southern states have some form of farm tenancy laws, varying in their specificity and determination of tenant rights. Such statutes may supply length of term (e.g. South Carolina) and prescribe termination notice periods required to prevent automatic renewals, often of one month or greater (e.g. Mississippi). Some laws allow a landowner to terminate a tenancy before planting, as in Alabama. The status of improvements – called trade fixtures – placed by the farmer can also come into question, and Georgiaprovides that any items on the parcel at the close of term become property of the landowner. Most such laws ensure payment of rent with a priority lien on crops in favor of the landowner. At the moment, there is no comprehensive source locating and describing farm tenancy laws for the southern states, however, this article serves as a summary of issues such laws might address, using North Carolina as an example. To locate your state’s farm tenancy law, try the search terms “farm” or “agriculture”, “tenant” or “tenancy”, and “[state] Code.”

Regardless of statutory protections, farm tenancy disputes require verbal sworn testimony in court to resolve, and otherwise require judicial interpretation of vague statutory language, so resolving disputes can be costly. Better practice dictates some form of writing to clarify the issues described above. Though farm leases can be a lengthy treatment of rights and responsibilities, or very short statement of place, rent and term, they serve as the clarifying record of the bargain which likely reduces disputes and expense to both landlords and farm tenants.

Brannon, Robert Andrew. “Verbal Farm Tenancy Protections in the South“. Southern Ag Today 2(23.5). June 3, 2022. Permalink

Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Drone Law as Unconstitutional

Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Drone Law as Unconstitutional

A judge on the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas has held that the “Use of Unmanned Aircraft” statute violates the First Amendment.  View Order here. The lawsuit, National Press Photographers Association v. McCraw, was filed by two media organizations and an individual journalist who claimed that provisions in this 2013 Texas statute violate their First Amendment rights.  In particular, the plaintiffs challenged two statutory concepts.  The first prohibits a drone from capturing an image of an individual or privately owned real property with the intent to conduct surveillance.  Numerous exceptions exist for a variety of uses including real estate agents, aerial mapping, and professional or scholarly research.  Second, they challenge a provision essentially prohibiting operating a drone over a correctional facility, detention facility, critical infrastructure facility, or sports venue.  Again, there are exceptions to the statute, allowing drones to fly over these facilities for “commercial purposes.”  Neither provision contains a newsgathering exception.  

Judge Pitman found the statute to violate the First Amendment as it is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest and is also unconstitutionally vague. To read more about this decision, click here.

Several other states have drone statutes as well, including several Southern states.  To view a compilation of those state laws from the National Agricultural Law Center, click here.

Lashmet, Tiffany. “Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Drone Law as Unconstitutional“. Southern Ag Today 2(17.5). April 22, 2022. Permalink

Overtime for the Agricultural Industry

Overtime for the Agricultural Industry

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) does not require that employees who are employed in agriculture receive the federal overtime payment of time and one-half their regular rates for hours worked more than 40 hours per week. However, states are free to enact their own regulations that mandate overtime requirements for agricultural workers. So far six states have taken that step and implemented their own requirements. The majority of the states mandating overtime for farmworkers are doing so on a schedule to build up to the final hours’ requirement. 

For example, California started to phase in an overtime requirement for agricultural workers in 2019. In 2019, California required that people employed in an agricultural occupation could not be employed more than nine and one-half hours or work more than 55 hours in a workweek without receiving overtime compensation. In 2020, the hours in a day decreased to 9, and the hours in a week were reduced to 50 for overtime compensation. Each year the hours decrease until the final overtime requirements are in place. As of January 1, 2022, in California, it is required that any agricultural employee working more than 8 hours a day or more than 40 hours a week receive overtime compensation. Additionally, like several other states, California has a slightly different schedule for small employers (25 or fewer employees), giving them more time to implement these changes.

Most recently, the New York Farm Laborers Wage Board voted to decrease the overtime threshold for agricultural workers from 60 to 40 hours. This change will be phased-in over a ten-year period, reducing by four hours on a biannual basis. Oregon is also in the process of passing a bill into law that would also require agricultural workers to receive overtime. House Bill 4002 passed both the Oregon House and Senate in early March of 2022 and is awaiting the governor’s signature. This would make Oregon the seventh state to require agricultural workers to receive overtime compensation.

Mikolajczyk, Samantha. “Overtime for the Agricultural Industry“. Southern Ag Today 2(16.5). April 15, 2022. Permalink

What Are Right-to-Farm Laws?

What Are Right-to-Farm Laws?

Agricultural operations often cause dust and odors which could impact neighbors and bring nuisance claims.  All 50 states have a right-to-farm law on the books, providing a nuisance defense for agricultural operations.  This defense varies from state to state, but each state’s law operates to provide a defense in situations when a party is claiming the farm is a nuisance.

What is a nuisance? A nuisance is a condition or situation impacting another person’s use and enjoyment of property. Let’s say, for example, that a grain producer applies nutrients to a field neighboring a residence. The neighbors might not be able to use their property immediately after the producer applies the nutrients due to the smell. This could be a potential nuisance because the neighbors have lost the use and enjoyment of their property.

A right-to-farm law operates to provide a defense to the agricultural operation when facing nuisance lawsuits.  To use the defense, the agricultural operation must meet their state’s statutory requirements, which vary from state to state.  In several states, for example, the farming operation would need to either preexist the non-agricultural uses in the area or at least be in operation for a set period. In many states, the operation must also comply with other federal, state, or even local laws, such as environmental laws or local zoning ordinances.

The right-to-farm law defense can be a powerful tool to protect a farming operation, but an operation needs to qualify for the defense.  The National Ag Law Center has compiled all of the state right-to-farm laws:

Goeringer, Paul. “What Are Right-to-Farm Laws?”. Southern Ag Today 2(15.5). April 8, 2022. Permalink