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David White

Avoiding Nuisance Complaints

There are several pro-active measures farmers should consider developing and implementing to help avoid nuisance complaints against their operation. Ohio Revised Code (ORC) 929.04 provides farmers who enroll their land in an agricultural district with a complete defense for nuisances involving agriculture if:

  1. The agricultural activities were conducted within an agricultural district;
  2. Agricultural activities were established within the agricultural district prior to the plaintiff’s activities or interest on which the action is based;
  3. The plaintiff was not involved in agricultural production; and
  4. The agricultural activities were not in conflict with federal, state, and local laws and rules relating to the alleged nuisance or were conducted in accordance with generally accepted agriculture practices.

Recently, Smithfield Foods and its subsidiary Murphy Brown have been confronted with a number of nuisance lawsuits in North Carolina. As of press time, three lawsuits have been won by the plaintiffs.

In these cases, the neighboring landowners claimed that odors, tractor and truck traffic, and pests caused by the hog farms were affecting their quality of life, property values, and use of their property. As a result lawsuits were filed on behalf of some of the neighboring property owners against Murphy Brown, LLC, as being a nuisance. Essentially, a nuisance occurs when a defendant unlawfully or substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of the plaintiff’s property. Every state has a right-to-farm law, which provides an affirmative defense to agricultural operations facing nuisance suits if certain requirements are met. Prior to the first trial, the judge ruled the North Carolina Right-to-Farm Act Avoiding Nuisance Complaints was inapplicable. Although these lawsuits are presently targeting hog operations in North Carolina, they could have far-reaching implications for all types of agricultural operations, regardless whether or not they raise livestock.

Farmers who plan to construct a new livestock facility or expand at the current site should first consider asking a neutral third party to conduct a site assessment. If the site does not meet the recommended minimum score, they should consider looking for an alternative location. The Ohio Pork Council has a site assessment scorecard specifically designed for this purpose.

Several years ago, the Ohio Livestock Coalition created a Good Neighbor Policy. The coalition believes, developing and maintaining good neighbor relations is important for all farmers. Neighbors may complain about the noise or odors from a farm, or about agricultural practices such as the application of pesticides or fertilizer simply because they do not understand why these activities are necessary. Additionally, many residents are concerned about environmental quality and the possible ways agriculture can affect the water they drink or water used for fishing or other recreational activities.

Farm and non-farm neighbors have a lot in common. Both care about their community and want to provide their families with the benefits of rural living. Farmers greatly benefit from being good neighbors. These benefits include pleasant relationships, maintaining a way of life, and ensuring the future success of the agricultural business.

Being a good neighbor means being considerate and responsible, and communicating with your neighbors. Farmers can reduce issues by giving some thought to their farming practices. It is easier and cheaper to prevent problems from escalating into conflict by communicating and building a trusting relationship with your neighbors. It will also be much easier to discuss problems when they arise. 

THE COALITION RECOMMENDS FARMERS FOLLOW THREE STEPS

Step 1

The first step to achieving and maintaining a positive relationship with the public is to behave in a responsible manner. Comply with all regulations and, where possible, exceed minimum environmental standards. Respect and appreciate neighbors’ concerns about your operation’s impact on their quality of life and property values.

Step 2

Appearance and neighbor relations should be a consideration when locating and managing a livestock or poultry facility. Wellmaintained buildings and landscaping indicate that the producer and employees are concerned about the environment. Trees and shrubs help screen facilities and can reduce odor and noise. Manure storage and other necessary parts of the operation commonly associated with odor should be located as far from public view as possible. The direction of prevailing winds should be considered in locating livestock and poultry production facilities.

Step 3

The third step is to emphasize your positive behaviors and actions and improve the public’s understanding of agriculture. Consider the following:

Get to know your neighbors. Getting to know your neighbors is the most important and simplest action you can take to help minimize conflicts. Knowing your neighbors, communicating, and having an “open door” policy makes it more likely that when they have a concern about your farm operation – such as noise or odor – they will call you directly to work it out instead of using other avenues, such as county or state governmental agencies or “word of mouth” gossip throughout the community. Also, when you have a complaint about a neighbor — such as trespassing or littering — they may be more open to discussing it with you. 

Talk to your neighbors. According to many farmers, talking with your neighbors and letting them know what you are doing is very important. Farmers who take the time to explain their practices often head off conflicts. Keep your neighbors informed of pending changes and actions, such as communicating manure or pesticide management plans, including times and potential locations for application. Working with your neighbors, determine dates or locations that should be avoided. Notify your neighbors of any changes you propose and explain changes in detail. When new neighbors move into the community, visit with them and invite them to visit the farm. If you have many neighbors, consider developing a newsletter to keep them informed about what’s going on at the farm.

Be a good neighbor yourself. If you expect your neighbors to be good neighbors, you must also be a good neighbor. Being neighborly means being friendly, helping them when needed, and being willing to accommodate them. Good neighbor strategies should include the following considerations:

Just use common sense. Simply using common sense can make a big difference in minimizing conflicts. The timeliness of farming means you sometimes do not have much choice about when you plant, spray or harvest. Often, however, you do have some control over when you do farm tasks. Applying manure on holiday weekends or a day when a neighbor is planning a picnic or cookout or spraying chemicals on a windy day, for example, will do little to build community harmony. Cleaning equipment and making sure it is operating properly can minimize the chance of manure, mud, or something else being dropped onto a public roadway. If something is deposited onto a public road by your equipment and machinery, clean it up immediately.

Timing is everything. Develop a farm management plan to take into account neighbors as well as the environment, while maximizing the value of farm inputs. Take time to explain what you do and why.

David White serves as AgCredit’s account manager for government relations and financial services.