Pa. bill amends state’s right-to-farm law

SALEM, Ohio – An amendment to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Farm act, currently stuck in a House committee, would hold local officials financially responsible for adopting illegal ordinances restricting farm size.

S.B. 1413, introduced this spring, would hold municipalities accountable for court costs when they are sued for making ordinances not in compliance with state law.

Although a municipal code amendment does not allow local governments to make laws that don’t comply with the state, many townships have passed ordinances illegally. These ordinances restrict the expansion of farms, in an effort to stop the growth of large-scale farming.

Approximately 10 municipalities have already passed these ordinances, and 40 others are considering them, according to Craig Shuey, legislative aide to Sen. Roger Madigan, R-23rd.

These officials ignored the law because there were no penalties, he said.

The bill is expected to come out of the Appropriations committee and go on to a full House vote soon, Shuey said.

Facing off. Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and Grange support the amendment, and these groups represent approximately 50,000 farm families, Shuey said.

Supporters say the bill will help family farms because it will not allow municipalities to continue making ordinances restricting farm growth.

According to cash grain farmer Craig Richard, these ordinances have hurt family farms because they need to grow in order to survive but the ordinances won’t allow them to do this.

It’s a natural progression for farms to get larger in order to make more money, said Richard of Locust Township, Pa.

“To me, a family farm is a family working together on a farm and the family is raising 100 percent of their income from the farm,” said Richard. “To get to this point, farms have to get bigger.”

On the other hand, opposition says the control should be with the local officials because they are closest to the issues and each township can deal with problems on an individual basis.

“We trust them,” Larry Breech, president of Pennsylvania Farmers Union, said in a letter to state representatives. “They may be family or friends or neighbors. We share the same community with them and need their support to prosper. We owe them our respect not only as neighbors but as citizens.”

Breech, a Bloomsburg, Pa., farmer, acknowledges that there is local abuse, however, he does not think the amendment is the way to handle the situation. He said many times the officials are in a bad situation because constituents want officials’ help, so they are willing to take the risk in order to protect the public’s needs.

The amendment will not give or take away any of the local authorities’ current regulating power, Richard said. It will just provide that townships bear the financial responsibility when the laws are disregarded.

Eye-to-eye? What both sides agree on is that family farms are important and need help. However, each side has a different view on how this can be accomplished.

Bill supporters say the legislation will allow farms to expand and thus continue making a profit, the opposition says that without the bill, corporate farmers will become more prevalent and take over family farms.

Although there is not a clear-cut definition of a corporate farm, it is usually regarded as a large-scale farming operation, usually with hogs or chickens. Feed mills or other contractors often own the animals and contract a farmer to raise them.

The major concern with large-scale farming is due to the amount of manure generated.

Bill opponents are using these negative images of factory farms to get what they want, Richard said.

What they aren’t listening to is that corporate farming actually helps family farmers, he said. These farms offer another cash alternative.

Vertical integration takes the financial risk away from farmers, Richard said, and is a way to fill an agricultural void of farmers choosing to get off-farm employment.

Not true, says Breech. “Vertical integration practices turn the independent family farmers into little more than poorly paid employees on their own farms,” Breech said in a letter to state representatives.

Bully bill. “[This bill] will become a bullying tool,” Breech said. “It will bully and punish municipalities who dare oppose factory farming.”

This punishment will come in the form of financial responsibility for lawsuits when local governments make ordinances not complying with state law.

The bill will create a “legal feast” for attorneys who can sue the township for amendment violations, Breech said. It will also make officials think twice about passing any laws regarding agriculture, he said.

Environmentalists are the ones fighting this bill because they see large operators as polluters. Richard said Pennsylvania already has Act 6, a nutrient management law, which will take care of that argument.

Breech disagrees and said that by following certain Act 6 rules, atmospheric pollution will take place.

Farming rights. The Commonwealth’s 1982 Right-to-Farm law provides farmers a basic right to farm without fear of lawsuits from offended neighbors.

“Right-to-farm laws are intended to discourage neighbors from suing farmers,” according to Farmland Information Center. “They help established farmers who use good management practices prevail in private nuisance lawsuits.”

The laws also “put nonfarm rural residents on notice that generally accepted agricultural practices are reasonable activities to expect in farming areas,” the center said.

Private nuisance is when someone’s actions interferes with a person’s reasonable enjoyment of his or her land. Right-to-farm laws strengthen the farmer’s position when they are sued for odor or minor fly problems.

Under Pennsylvania’s original law there was a one-year delay on the law’s protection for any new operation or when an existing operation substantially changed or increased production.

In 1988, Act 58 was passed, which allowed farms to make changes without relinquishing their right-to-farm protection. It also allowed farmers to adopt new technology methods or production advances without giving up their protection.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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