AUBURN, AL—April 4, 2019—All 50 U.S. states have “right-to-farm” laws, but what or whom do they really protect?
A recent study addresses this question for the first time, and the answers don’t bode well for small and medium-sized farms.
“On the aggregate, such laws protect industrial-scale operations and the production of profit as the ultimate aim of farming,” states the study, which recently appeared in the Journal of Rural Studies. The study was co-authored by Loka Ashwood, assistant professor in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, along with Danielle Diamond, researcher for Northern Illinois University and former Auburn University graduate student Fiona Walker.
The research on which the study is based exposes how these laws reduce rural peoples’ capacity to protect their land, livelihoods and basic human rights to clean soil, air and water, said Diamond, who is also an attorney and Director of Field Operations for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP), a nonprofit that works nationwide with rural communities being negatively impacted by industrial animal agriculture.
“Farmers and rural residents who have been or will be directly impacted can hopefully use our research to educate their communities and lawmakers about the true implications of right-to-farm laws and corresponding agribusiness-driven legislative or public policy initiatives,” she said.
Any industry that can only survive in the marketplace by imposing Right-to-Farm laws to take away rural residents' basic property rights should be heavily scrutinized, said Diamond. “Our research shows that this is how the industrial animal agriculture industry continues to operate in the U.S.,” she said.
As a co-author of the study, Diamond provided in-depth analyses of how state right-to-farm laws intersect with other state and federal statutes and regulations, case law, public policies, and legislation.
Right-to-farm laws suggest in name what rural people desperately need: a defense of farming livelihoods against the trends of industrialization and get-big-or-get-out agriculture. However, the name for these laws is deceiving, said Ashwood.
“Right-to-farm laws constrain the capacity of certain property holders to defend their property rights,” she said. “It constrains their capacity to file nuisance lawsuits.”
This type of legislation was initially proposed by legislators with the stated intent of protecting land and smaller farms, often called family farms, said Ashwood. “But in the actual content of these laws, only four states include language that protects land from sprawl. They largely don’t stop urban sprawl and give farmers extra rights. They do, however, protect very large-scale operations.
“Sometimes, right-to-farm laws reduce the ability of smaller farmers to sue large-scale operations, for reasons like their cattle have gotten sick from drinking from a polluted pond or because their well water has E. coli in it. From what we’ve seen, the language is protecting the largest of operations,” she said.
When right-to-farm laws were first put onto the books in the late1970s and 1980s, farmers were especially concerned with suburban and urban sprawl, said Ashwood. “Farmers are still concerned today about farmland being taking over and about losing their farmland to urban and suburban sprawl,” she said. “It’s a serious issue, especially for farmers in areas of high growth.”
While every state has these laws, sociologists have never looked this closely at them, said Ashwood. “There hasn’t been a comprehensive 50-state study since the late 1980s when an agricultural attorney looked at the right-to-farm laws,” she said. “But no one has looked at these in such a comprehensive way or with a more advanced software—Nvivo—that enabled this study.
“That’s how we were able to turn the laws into descriptive statistics so we could note trends. We think it will be helpful for farmers and rural people to understand what these laws mean and hopefully change them to make them more effective for small and medium-sized farms.”
Among the study’s many findings is that the word production is the most commonly used term to define a farm, being present in 90 percent of state definitions, said Ashwood.
“The farmer is listed as a person in only 12 percent or 6 of the states. When you’re not talking about farmers as people, then you’re favoring larger operations where you don’t have a traditional farmer who is present on the property.”
If a farmer and their family have been in a location for several generations, then they deserve some level of protection, she said.
“But we found that the laws in only eight states say that if the farm is there first, there should be extra protection,” said Ashwood. “In fact, the most predominant thing we found is if the operation has been running for a year, the capacity to sue for nuisance is constrained. We see that as subverting the longevity of farmers. In many cases, these are corporations and not family farms.”
International agribusinesses appear to be gaining the most from right-to-farm laws, extracting profits from local landowners and centralizing that money in a corporation that is not domestically owned and then redistributing the profit abroad, she said.
“Right-to-farm laws elevate the production of profit rather than the sustenance of labor or family,” said Ashwood. “There’s little to no mention of people who own the property and also work on it.”
The entire article can be found here: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1YhTm2eyKFZfFP. It is available to view and download without a subscription until April 27, 2019.
Media Contact: Julie Sanchez, JulieS@SRAProject.org or 720-250-6871.
Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP) is a national organization that informs and educates the general public about the negative effects of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and works directly with communities across the country to protect their public health, environmental quality, natural resources, and local economies from the damaging impacts of factory farms. www.sraproject.org