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All 50 U.S. states have “right-to-farm” laws, but what or whom do they really protect?

A recent study coauthored by Auburn University researcher Loka Ashwood 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,” stated the study, which recently appeared in the Journal of Rural Studies and was written by Ashwood, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, along with Danielle Diamond, researcher for Northern Illinois University, and former Auburn graduate student Fiona Walker.

‘Get-Big-Or-Get-Out’ Agriculture

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, Ashwood 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, Ashwood said.

“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,” she said. “From what we’ve seen, the language is protecting the largest of operations.”

Laws Designed To Slow Ag Land Loss To Urban Sprawl

When right-to-farm laws were first put onto the books in the 1970s and 1980s, farmers were especially concerned with suburban and urban sprawl, Ashwood said.

“Farmers are still concerned today about farmland being taken over and about losing their farmland to urban and suburban sprawl,” she said. “It’s a serious issue, especially for farmers in growing areas like Lee County (Alabama), or outside Montgomery, Birmingham or Huntsville.”

The research on which the study is based exposes how these laws reduce rural people’s’ capacity to protect their land, livelihoods and rights to clean soil, air and water, said Diamond, who also is an attorney and director of field operations for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, a nonprofit that works nationwide with rural communities being negatively affected by industrial animal agriculture.

Urban and suburban sprawl spills over into the countryside

“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, Diamond said.

“Our research shows that this is how the industrial animal agriculture industry continues to operate in the U.S.,” she said.

As a coauthor 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.

While every state has these laws, sociologists have never looked this closely at them, Ashwood said.

“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, Ashwood said.

Only 8 States Provide Extra Protection

“The farmer is listed as a person in only 12 percent, or six, of the states. When you’re not talking about farmers as people, you’re favoring larger operations where you don’t have a traditional farmer who is present on the property.”

If a farmer and his or her 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,” Ashwood said. “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,” Ashwood said. “There’s little to no mention of people who own the property and also work on it.”

Ashwood is working with a team to continue analyzing these laws, including their changes over time, and case law in each state, to better understand who uses these laws and for what ends. This four-year project is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture and the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s Research Enhancement, Exploration and Development Program.

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