Ag industry creating stink again over latest right-to-farm bill

By: - February 15, 2022 5:59 pm

Rep. Robert Dickey, a middle Georgia Republican, is proposing a rewrite of the state’s four-decade-old “Right to Farm” law. But opponents warn it will open the door to large-scale animal operations. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Charlotte Swancy says she tries to be a good neighbor as she raises cattle and hogs on her 300-acre farm in north Georgia.

But Swancy said she also wants assurances that any other farmer who may move in near her will do the same. She’s particularly concerned about large-scale agricultural businesses, known as concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO, pointing to a massive poultry operation that eyed Gordon County last year.

Swancy argues Georgia’s current “right to farm” law has worked just fine for the last four decades to shield farmers from newcomers who object to the smells and sounds of country living.

There’s a proposal on the move under the Gold Dome to rewrite that law, which opponents warn could attract more large-scale industrial operations to the state. A similar proposal stalled in 2020 but not before sparking impassioned debate over private property rights and farm heritage.

The new version has been dubbed “Freedom to Farm” and has the backing of the House Rural Development Council and major agricultural industry groups, like the Georgia Farm Bureau. One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, who represents a rural South Georgia district, called it “probably the most important piece of legislation we will look at this year.”

A public hearing was held early Tuesday morning even though the new version of the bill was not available to view online, complicating the public’s ability to comment. Swancy asked to read a lawmaker’s hard copy of the new bill as she attempted to weigh in at the hearing. The committee did not vote on the bill.

“My concern is that we’re weakening the (law) and I don’t want it to get weakened,” Swancy said. “I want it to be a strong bill to protect my farm, and my son, when he goes on to farm.”

She characterized nuisance farmers as those who exceed the capacity of the land, water and air. “Some of these CAFOs do take it way beyond the ‘carrying’ capacity. That’s why they smell so bad,” she said.

The concerns surrounding massive meat producers are partly due to the bill’s origin. The push for changes here in Georgia started in 2019 in response to eye-popping jury verdicts against hog producers in North Carolina who had been storing smelly pig waste in ponds and spreading it across fields as fertilizer.

The new version proposed Tuesday attempts to assuage those concerns about large-scale industrial meat producers, spelling out in the bill that hog-feeding operations of any size and producers with, for example, more than 300 cattle would not benefit from the broader protections offered in the bill. That means the one-year timeframe for a nuisance claim would start over if a facility began one of these animal operations. 

But the proposal would strip all mention of urban sprawl and “changed conditions” around the farm, broadening the application of the law.

Rep. Robert Dickey, a Musella Republican and peach farmer who is sponsoring the bill, acknowledged Tuesday that his bill is not designed to address a problem currently facing Georgia Farmers. Dickey also chairs the House Agriculture Committee.

“All we’re trying to do is just give them some legal certainty, some legal protections that they just can’t be run off their farm by folks that are moving in or those type things,” Dickey said after the hearing. “So that’s simply all we’re trying to do with this. Nothing complicated; no new, great, big protections. It’s just clarity of a law now that’s been thrown in question in other states.”

Agricultural groups, which represent the state’s largest industry, argue the state has changed in the last 40 years – with subdivisions popping up in previously agricultural areas – and the law should reflect that while protecting the investments of producers.

“I would say that even in rural areas, it’s very difficult to find a place in Georgia where there’s already not non-farming people living around proposed new farms,” said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.

But April Lipscomb, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, cautioned lawmakers that the changes proposed could lead to court challenges, pointing to an Iowa law that was recently found unconstitutional.

“What this bill does is it says that we value newly arriving, industrial-scale animal operations more than we value long-standing Georgians’ private property rights,” Lipscomb said.

“Our current ‘Right to Farm law is really, really strong. I am not aware of a single farm that has been shut down because of nuisances in the state of Georgia,” she added. 

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.