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‘Right to Farm’ debate to be renewed in General Assembly

Bureau Chief Capitol Beat News Service

After a year in limbo, “Right to Farm” legislation being pushed by groups representing the farming and livestock industries will be back before the General Assembly this winter. “There’s no bigger issue to our organization than right to farm,” Will Bentley, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, told members of the Georgia House Rural Development Council Dec. 8. “It’s becoming more and more of an issue around the state.” The Right to Farm Act would make it harder for property owners living in areas zoned for agricultural use to file nuisance lawsuits against nearby farms or livestock operations. The Georgia Senate passed the bill during the 2020 legislative session but it fizzled in the state House of Representatives.

After staying quiet during this year’s session, groups including the agribusiness council, the Georgia Farm Bureau, the Georgia Forestry Association and the Georgia Poultry Federation are vowing to renew their campaign in support of the measure during the 2022 session.

The need to protect farms and livestock operators from nuisance suits has grown increasingly urgent over time, said Mike Giles, president of the poultry federation. Year after year, more and more urban and suburban residents move to the country to enjoy the rural lifestyle, Giles said. Once they get there, some are bothered by the smells, dust and noise associated with nearby farms and livestock operations and file nuisance suits, he said.

Giles pointed to $100 million awards in nuisance suits in North Carolina that have crippled farmers.

“Trial attorneys can put farms and agribusiness out of business,” said state Rep. Robert Dickey, RMusella, chairman of the House Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent.” Opponents say an earlier Right to Farm law Georgia lawmakers passed during the 1980s contains adequate protections for farmers. “Existing farmers are protected,” said Gordon Rogers, executive director of Albany-based Flint Riverkeeper. But supporters of updating the Right to Farm Act say new farming operations are most in need of protection from nuisance suits because Georgia is running out of sparsely populated areas where residential encroachment has not occurred. “There’s just no part of the state where you can put agriculture where there’s not already people there,” Bentley said. Jacob Matthews, a governmental affairs specialist with the Georgia Farm Bureau, said Right to Farm protection is an economic issue. “If we’re trying to boost rural Georgia’s economy, it’s important to make sure the opportunity is there for people to come in and start new farms,” he said.

Rogers said environmental organizations that oppose the updated Right to Farm Act don’t object to row crop farming or timber operations.

But he said the bill’s real intention is to protect giant livestock operations like the industrial hog farm operated in North Carolina by Smithfield Foods that was sued successfully by neighbors late last year.

“Nobody wants to be next to them,” Rogers said.

The Senate amended the 2020 bill to require that lawsuits challenging farms or livestock operations must be filed within two years of when a nuisance occurs. More restrictive language in the original legislation would have required suits to be brought within two years of an applicant obtaining a permit to start or change a farm operation.

While environmental groups working the issue accepted the new statute of limitations as a compromise, it didn’t go over well with the original bill’s backers. Supporters in the House sought to strip the amendment from the measure, but when that effort failed, the legislation died.

It’s unclear whether the two-year statute of limitations will be in the 2022 bill because it is not among the measures that have been pre-filed in advance of the legislative session.

“The question is, ‘Do they want to have that same fight, or are they coming up with something more creative?’ ” Rogers said.

The bill isn’t expected to be introduced until after the General Assembly convenes next month.

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

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