For The Record

Bill shielding Georgia farmers from nuisance suits passes Senate

By: - April 1, 2022 5:11 pm

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Robert Dickey, a Musella Republican and peach farmer, defended the changes as needed to protect family farms. Several supporters have voiced concern about the country’s shrinking farmland. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder (February 2022 file photo)

A controversial proposal that would make it harder for Georgia landowners to file a nuisance claim against a neighboring agricultural producer has cleared the Senate.

A similar measure stalled two years ago after the Senate made changes opposed by the bill’s backers. Changes were made once again in the Senate this session but haven’t drawn the same objections.

Supporters are now pointing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its effect on the global food supply chain when arguing the need for greater protections for the state’s top industry.  

“We’ve got to continue to find ways to protect agriculture, and this underlying bill does that. This underlying bill ensures that agriculture is protected for years to come,” said Sen. Tyler Harper, an Ocilla Republican who is running for agriculture commissioner.

The bill passed the Senate Friday with a 31-23 vote, with two Republicans joining the Democrats in opposing it. The House, which approved an earlier version, would need to give it final approval by Monday for it to make it to the governor’s desk.

Called the “freedom to farm” by supporters, environmentalists and others have panned the measure as the “bad neighbor bill” and say it throws out current protections for the property owner who was there first.

Critics have also argued the state’s existing law has shielded farmers from unreasonable nuisance claims for decades, but proponents have insisted greater protections are needed to head off problems as development continues to stretch out into rural areas. Eye-popping jury verdicts against hog producers in North Carolina were what originally triggered the push for changes here.

If approved, the change would limit nuisance claims against farmers to the first two years of operation. The clock would start over for new large-scale industrial animal operations, which is a concession meant to address concerns the bill would pave the way for massive animal operations.

The proposed shift away from protecting the property owner who was there first continues to draw objections from those who also argue two years is not long enough to identify some nuisances. 

“If I’m a city girl and I move out to the farm, then I can’t complain, and that’s our current law,” said Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat and goat farmer who voted against the bill.

“But in this new law, if we were to pass it, this would say that if the farm moved to me, to my neighborhood, I still can’t complain after they’ve been there for two years. The farm is coming to me and bringing all their stuff that I didn’t necessarily agree to.”  

But the global unrest and supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have added new fuel to the push for changes to the state’s “right to farm” law.  

“After going through the pandemic, we also realize that food is an important part of our national security, not just our food security. We don’t need to be depending on foreign nations to feed our country,” said Perry Republican Sen. Larry Walker, who chairs the Senate agriculture committee and who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent that we need to be not only energy independent, but also food independent.”

As before, the proposal has elicited passionate arguments for and against the changes, with lawmakers offering competing claims of farm heritage.

“We already ask our farmers to meet environmental standards that far exceed those around the globe,” said Sen. Russ Goodman, a Cogdell Republican and blueberry farmer. “The least we can do is protect them from nuisance lawsuits as long as they meet the standards in their daily work of feeding the citizens of this great country of ours.” 

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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.