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Right to Farm: It’s Not What You Think It Is

When one thinks of Right to Farm, an image of small farmers having the right to plant and work their land, graze their livestock, and feed their communities with healthy, fresh foods may come to mind. However, despite the pastoral images that are conjured, the intent behind Right to Farm laws is motivated by big business and corporate agribusiness’ expansion into rural areas without accountability.  

Despite the agrarian-sounding name, in many cases, Right to Farm laws have been used to tie the hands of rural people while providing large-scale agribusinesses and others a free pass to pollute. 

Promoted by ALEC, some version of Right to Farm laws have been enacted in all 50 states. 


CAFOs & Other “Farming” Activities: 

Right to Farm laws gained traction due to a false narrative that they were needed because urban people were moving to the country and didn’t like the smell or sounds of the farm. It was said that Right to Farm laws were intended to protect existing farms from nuisance lawsuits filed by new rural residents, however, these laws originate from nefarious intent and now they are used to not only prevent nuisance lawsuits but also stop rural communities from opposing construction of new CAFOs, also known as factory farms, and other harmful industrial agriculture activities.

Right to Farm laws often preempt local control, meaning rural communities don’t have decision-making power over where CAFOs can be built. This is significant for many Black, brown and Indigenous communities where CAFOs tend to be disproportionately sited. CAFOs are increasingly devastating rural communities, turning the air toxic, poisoning drinking water, and making it more difficult for small and medium-sized farmers to do business. Right to Farm laws also limit the liability for polluting livestock operations leaving communities with poisoned wells, dangerous air and decreased property values with minimal legal recourse.  

It’s not just CAFOs that Right to Farm laws protect. Though many Right to Farm laws were initially narrowly drafted, in recent decades amendments and lawsuits have resulted in the expansion of scope in these laws that more broadly protect corporate agriculture entities. In Oregon, amendments to the 1981 Right to Farm law passed in the early 1990s increasing the scope of the law to protect farming and forestry activities:  

“…in areas zoned for farm or forestry uses against claims relating to vibration, odors, smoke dust, pesticide drift and irrigation..regardless of the amount acreage, the farm size…or the type of organization. Further, farm operations are protected regardless of whether or not they predate other dwellers or rural residents.”  (Oregon’s Right-to-Farm Summary, One Rural)

This broad Right to Farm law has had a significant impact on Oregon’s communities. In 2011, a group of farmers sued the state of Oregon arguing that the Right to Farm law was unconstitutional because it stopped them from seeking compensation against pesticide drift that impacted their farms since under law, it was a protected activity. Though their case was dismissed, the conflict has not been resolved and the broad language of the law remains intact while communities remain at risk from harmful agricultural practices.  

As recently as 2021, a farming community outside of Salem, Oregon is fighting against the siting of a 3.5-million broiler chicken CAFO for Foster Farms just 400 yards from the banks of the North Santiam River in the Willamette Valley. Despite concerns about this operation and its proximity to the river, Oregon’s Right to Farm law prevents local governments from having any regulatory authority over an agriculture operation. 


What Can State Legislators Do?

Right to Farm laws are often passed at the state level and despite ongoing pushback continue to be enacted, with Arizona being just one recent example.  Legislators can champion opposition to these laws by arguing against proposed amendments that strengthen and increase the scope of Right to Farm laws. State legislators can also shift the narrative of what Right to Farm laws really mean and who they actually protect—corporate agriculture. 

At the community level, there is growing awareness that Right to Farm laws are a danger to rural communities, the environment, and democracy. Across the country, communities are fighting back, and in state legislatures, there is growing support for factory farm moratorium bills to stop the growth of large-scale livestock operations until adequate regulations that protect people can be put into place. Right to Farm laws give CAFOs and other harmful industrial agriculture practices a free pass to pollute and destroy rural communities with little recourse. Enactment of CAFO moratorium bills is one of the ways rural communities can take back some of the power from Right to Farm laws. 


To learn more about right to farm laws watch this short video

If you are a state legislator and would like to work on protecting rural communities, small farmers and the environment from CAFOs or pushing back against Right to Farm laws reach out to us at [email protected]

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