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Right-to-Farm and Expanding Your Operation

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Tractor going on a field on a hill (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

Note: this post should not be considered legal advice.

Everyone starts a business and hopes that it will eventually will grow and become successful. Farmers are no different in these aspirations. A recent decision from Idaho illustrates why sometime that dream may not always be realistic. Before we look at the case let me point out, right-to-farm (RTF) laws vary from state-to-state and the outcome may not be the same in Maryland. Maryland’s right-to-farm law does require mediation before going to court which could potentially change the outcome. I highlight the case to give you something to think about if you are considering expanding an existing operation.

Field with barns in the background (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

In McVicars v. Christensen, the McVicarses moved to their property in 1991 and at the time the neighboring farm was used for cattle and alpacas. In 2003, the Christensens bought the farm and started a horse operation there and by 2006, the Christensens were expanding the operation by building a riding arena in close proximity to the McVicars property. McVicars brought a nuisance suit and the issue important to us on appeal is the claimed that the lower court failed in not applying Idaho’s RTF law (320 P.3d 948, 951). Christensens on appeal argued that the lower court should have considered the application of the RTF law on situations where an existing ag operation decides to expand. On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that the RTF law only applied where there is encroachment of urbanization on a traditional agricultural area or where there is a change in the nonagricultural areas that surround the ag area. In previous cases, the court had found that a feedlot had become a nuisance when expanding and had coexisted with neighbors for years before the expansion. In that case because there was no change in the surrounding area only in the agricultural operation the RTF law did not apply. In Christensen’s case, adding in the riding arena had changed the area nothing had changed in the nonagricultural areas, and for those reasons the RTF law would not apply (at 953).

Inside of a barn with cows (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

Could a Maryland farmer looking to expand face a similar problem as the Christensens did in Idaho? What if a poultry grower decided to expand from1 house to 2 houses and since the first house had been built a housing development had been built on the neighboring farm? The answer is not entirely clear here in Maryland. Remember any nuisance suit involving your agriculture operation would first have to be heard by a mediator. Mediation is a more flexible process than court and both parties may agree on a better outcome depending on their situations.

The other thing to consider is being open and willing to talk with your neighbors to make them aware of possible expansion activities. Educate them on what the good and the bad of the expansion will be on them as neighbors. Be willing to take their arguments into consideration and look for ways to alleviate fears early on (you may have a site in mind that you want to use for the expansion but after talking with neighbors realize that if you use another site you may face less complaints). Taking these things into consideration early on may save you legal bills down the road.

For background on Maryland’s RTF law, check out Understanding Agricultural Liability: Maryland’s Right-to-Farm Law and the MDA’s Agricultural Conflict Resolution Services website.

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