Expanded Right to Farm protections advance over objections from urban senators

April 11, 2019 GMT

An expansion of Nebraska’s Right to Farm Act won first-round approval at the Legislature after defeating a filibuster that dragged out debate for six hours across two days this week.

The bill (LB227) introduced by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango would broaden legal protections to farm and livestock producers over nuisances like odors and dust.

Hughes said the bill would encourage more producers to invest in and diversify their operations -- adding a chicken or hog barn to their row crop farm, for example -- in an effort to keep agriculture viable in Nebraska.

Passed in 1982, the Right to Farm Act gives longtime farmers and ranchers protections from nuisance lawsuits, specifically from those who later move onto properties adjacent to their operations but find the smell, dust or insects objectionable.

LB227 would expand those protections to farmers who change the type or size of their operation, adopt new technology or enroll in government programs as long as the farmers use “reasonable techniques” to mitigate nuisances.

It would also protect a farm’s new owners from being sued by neighbors if they later create a nuisance, which led to opposition from several urban senators, including Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who said LB227 effectively “closed the doors to the courthouse” for neighbors who may have lived on their property for years before a problem began.

“When you take away someone’s home and then immunize the person doing this, I have a problem with it,” Lathrop said.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said the bill was brought at the behest of corporate farming groups like Costco and against the wishes of small family farmers and those living in small towns who would be “stunk out of their homes” by large chicken or hog farms.

But Hughes said the focus of his bill was to help farmers of all sizes, and he reiterated several times that many of the issues raised by opponents would be avoided through proper county zoning regulations, which create setbacks from residential properties for certain operations.

If zoning setbacks and technology created to mitigate nuisances was available and in use, Lathrop later asked rhetorically, then what was the purpose of an expanded Right to Farm Act?

Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, the Agriculture Committee chair, said residents of rural Nebraska understand there are some nuisances that come from agriculture, but that farmers work to follow zoning regulations as well as live agreeably among their neighbors.

The goal of the bill, Halloran added, was to give more producers a chance to remain economically viable, as well as meet demand of consumers.

“It’s no longer Old McDonald had a farm ... and on this farm he had one type of each kind of livestock,” Halloran said. “The real nuisance would be $35 steaks or $15 hamburgers.”

Several amendments were introduced in order to address concerns raised during the lengthy debate, including one Hughes drafted with Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha that would allow neighbors to file a nuisance lawsuit within two years of any change to a farming operation, including a change of ownership, type of farm or size.

While opponents remained skeptical of when the two-year clock would start, saying it could potentially prevent neighbors from filing a lawsuit if something becomes a nuisance after two years, the amendment was adopted with 36 votes, and LB227 was advanced to the second round of consideration with 31 votes.