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What is a Farm Tenancy? Will You Know It When You See It?

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

By Sarah Everhart

Brown foal galloping (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

In a recent decision from the Iowa Court of Appeals (Porter v. Harden, No. 15-0683) tenants who lived on a piece a property for 24 years were served with a 30-day notice to terminate the lease. The tenants argued they were entitled to six months’ notice because they had a horse which grazed on the property, making the lease a farm tenancy. The Court agreed with the tenants. This decision made me pause and wonder: Would a similar decision be reached in Maryland, and what exactly is a farm tenancy, anyway?

Iowa defines a farm tenancy as “a leasehold interest in land held by a person who produces crops or provides for the care and feeding of livestock on the land, including by grazing or supplying feed to the livestock.” The Court in Porter v. Harden, No. 15-0683, found, due to the language used to define a “farm tenancy,” the tenants did not actually need to produce crops or raise livestock; having a single horse graze on the property was enough to convert the residential lease into a farm tenancy. As previously discussed on this blog, Maryland also requires six months’ notice before the expiration of the lease year to terminate a farm tenancy. But how does Maryland define a farm tenancy? The short answer is, it doesn’t.

Although the term farm tenancy is not defined in the section of the law where it is used, similar terms are defined elsewhere in the Maryland Code. For example, Maryland’s Right to Farm Law defines “agricultural operation” as an operation processing agricultural crops or on-farm production, harvesting, or marketing of any agricultural, horticultural, silvicultural, aquacultural, or apicultural product grown, raised, or cultivated by the farmer.

Additionally, Maryland’s Eminent Domain law defines a “farm operation” as any activity conducted solely for the production of one or more agricultural products or commodities, including timber, for sale or home use, and usually producing enough of these products in sufficient quantity to contribute materially to the operator’s support. Both definitions are very broad and include many practices that could be found to amount to a farm tenancy.

The Maryland Court of Appeals hasn’t directly answered the question of what amounts to a farm tenancy in a landlord tenant case, but it did find in Marzullo v. Kahl, a zoning case, the landowner’s business of breeding, raising, and selling snakes and reptiles did not meet Baltimore County’s definition of “commercial agriculture.” Although the county’s definition included “animal husbandry,” the Court found the law related to production and care of domestic animals as opposed to a business involving wild animals.

So what are Maryland landlords and tenants to do if they are unsure whether or not a leasing relationship amounts to a farm tenancy? A safe bet is: If you know you plan to terminate the lease, instead of providing the lesser notice required to end a non-farm lease, give six months’ notice. In other words, whenever possible, err on the side of giving more notice than required to terminate the lease.

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