This post is not legal advice.
All fifty states have some version of a right-to-farm law that provides defenses to agricultural producers for lawsuits they are committing a nuisance in his/her operations. In November 2016, the Court of Appeals of Iowa upholds a lower court’s ruling that Iowa’s right-to-farm law is unconstitutional as applied to a neighbor claiming a neighboring hog farm is a nuisance and awarding damages to the neighbor. For those unaware, finding a state’s right-to-law unconstitutional as applied to a neighbor is a unique to Iowa. Iowa’s courts have found the state’s right-to-farm law is unconstitutional when applied to neighbors there first. At this point, no states have followed Iowa’s lead and found their state’s right-to-farm laws unconstitutional as applied to neighbors there first.
The McIlrath family bought the farm in 1971 and eventually gifted one-acre tracts to their son who built a home near his parents’ home. Prestage Farms built a 2496-confined hog facility in 2012. This confined hog farm built 2200 feet from the McIlraths’ home.
In 2013, Mrs. McIlrath brought a nuisance lawsuit against the confined hog farm and sought damages. At the trial, McIlrath testified as to the smell of the hog farm when the wind blew from the southwest, how strong the odor was, and how often that sharp odor was around. She also had neighbors testify as to the impact of the odor on their properties. Finally, she had the testimony or depositions of experts concerning the actions Prestage could have taken to lessen the impact from odors.
Prestage Farms claimed that the Iowa right-to-farm law provided the farm immunity from the nuisance lawsuit. Prestage also had neighboring landowners who testified that the odor to be unreasonable or offensive. State officials also testified to demonstrate the farm was in compliance will applicable laws. Finally, experts testified the farm was omitting little gas and the types of the best management practices the farm was utilizing.
The trial court found that Iowa’s right-to-farm law was unconstitutional as applied in this case. The jury returned a verdict awarding damages (close to $525,000), and the farm failed to use existing generally accepted management practices that were reasonable for the farm to utilize. The farm appealed to the Court of Appeals of Iowa.
Iowa’s Right-to-Farm Law Unconstitutional As-Applied
Iowa’s right-to-farm law operates like other states’ right-to-farm laws. In Iowa, an animal feeding operation (Prestage Farms is one) cannot be found to be a public or private nuisance, unless the farm failed to comply with federal or state law or regulation that applies to the farm or both of the following:
- The farm is unreasonable and for substantial periods of times interferes with a neighbor’s use, and
- The farm failed to use existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the farm.
If the farm meets all the qualifications, then it is protected under the right-to-farm law.
A prior ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court (Gacke v. Pork Xtra, L.L.C.) held the state’s right-to-farm law could be unconstitutional when applied. In that case, the Iowa Supreme Court found property owners existing before the arrival of the farm have no remedy. These prior existing property owners bear the brunt of the nuisance created by the farm and receive no real benefit. The situation would be different for someone coming after the establishment of the farm, that person could potentially receive the property at a discount, take steps to mitigate the impact of the nuisance, or just not buy near the farm. In the view of the Iowa Supreme Court, the right-to-farm law gives a farm operator the ability to use his/her property without any regard for the rights of neighbors. In Gacke, the Iowa Supreme Court found the law to be unconstitutional as applied to Gacke, but state there might be situations when the right-to-farm law would be constitutional.
The Court of Appeals agreed that the right-to-farm law was unconstitutional as applied to Mrs. McIlrath. According to the court, the factual situation in this case and Gacke are very similar. In both cases, we had property owners who had lived on the property before the arrival of the confined animal facility and allowing the farm to continue as a nuisance would deprive property owners, like McIlrath, of a remedy and place the burden of the nuisance on them. The Court of Appeals refused to overturn the ruling of the trial court.
This case represents the second time an Iowa appellate court has ruled that the state’s right-to-farm law is unconstitutional as applied to a landowner existing before the complained about farming operation. At this time, there are no reported opinions of how this case would turn out if McIlrath moved in after the Prestage Farm had opened the confined hog farm. Iowa’s right-to-farm law may be constitutional as applied in that case. In the case of a property owner buying in after the confined hog farm opened, the property owner would have been aware of the nuisance before moving in and could have taken steps to mitigate the nuisances impact. The Iowa appellate courts have yet to consider that fact pattern.
No state court has yet to follow the Iowa Supreme Court when presented with similar fact patterns as Gacke. State courts have rejected the view that their states’ right-to-farm laws can be unconstitutional as-applied to landowners existing before the establishment of the farming operation. Maryland has no reported cases involving the right-to-farm law, so this is an unanswered question in Maryland at this time. Although how Maryland’s right-to-farm law operates, requiring mediation before going to court, it seems unlikely a court would find the law unconstitutional as applied (but remember that is a guess by me, so it holds no true legal value).
McIlrath v. Prestage Farms of Iowa, L.L.C., No. 15-1599, 2016 WL 6902328 (Iowa Ct. App. Nov. 23, 2016).