Origins and Content of R-T-F Legislation


As a tool to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits by neighbors, right-to-farm ordinances have existed for almost 40 years in the United States. Currently all 50 states have codified Rigth to Farm laws. Most county right-to-farm ordinances have similar contents. Four major provisions are common:

  1. a statement of purpose,
  2. definitions of agricultural operations and farmland,
  3. limitation on agricultural nuisances, and
  4. agricultural disclosure requirements.

A few ordinances also provide for a formal grievance procedure.

Within this common framework, ordinances differ from county to county in detail and added topics. Disclosure provisions, for example, vary a great deal according to when and how notification about nearby agricultural conditions is supposed to be provided. As adopted and sometimes changed by county legislative bodies ordinance language is a product of local priorities and political pressures.


Common Ordinance Provisions

Statement of Purpose

Generally a policy statement outlining the intent of the ordinance—to preserve agricultural  operations, promote a good-neighbor policy between farm and other landowners, or to affirm the county’s commitment to agriculture as a component of the local economy.



For legal clarity, an agricultural operation is defined according to the state code. Farmland is defined by location in an agricultural zone; other counties define it more broadly as land that currently or potentially supports active agricultural operations.



Usually a reference to the state code that prohibits a nuisance finding if the agricultural operation is conducted according to established farming practices, has existed at the same location for more than three years, and does not infringe upon a public right-of-way. Some counties reduce the time requirement to one year.



A requirement that a potential purchaser of property near farming or the developer of residential property in such an area be notified of the impacts of the agricultural operation.


Grievance Procedures

Formal procedures in some counties for resolving complaints against agricultural operations, usually involving mediation by a committee whose organization and timing may be specified.


Perceived Impacts

Right-to-farm ordinances are primarily education tools. The ordinances mainly serve to inform and educate residents about the local value of agriculture. The major intention is to tell homebuyers about the consequences of locating in agricultural areas, but the audiences of the information also include the community at large and farmers themselves. The ordinances generally seem to accomplish this purpose, although their informational impacts vary by county and depend on specific provisions and implementation.

A right-to-farm ordinance is not a substitute for good land use planning. The ordinances are not regulatory tools; they lack the planning and urban development power of agricultural zoning, general plans, and subdivision controls.

Right-to-farm ordinances do not insulate farmers from lawsuits nor do they provide farmers with rights not already codified in state law.

While a right-to-farm ordinance may serve to resolve many small complaints, it will not prevent a farmer from being sued over an agricultural practice, even one that is covered under the ordinance as a normally accepted farming practice.



What makes for an effective county right-to-farm ordinance? The key lies in specific disclosure requirements and how they are implemented. Formal grievance procedures are far less essential, considering their limited use in the counties that have them and the greater importance of informal methods for resolving farmer-resident conflicts. An effective ordinance is one that fully informs both directly affected parties and the community at large about the importance of maintaining productive agriculture in the face of urban growth. For homeowners and other residents in edge areas, those considering purchase and those already living there, this means acquiring a full appreciation of the consequences of residing next to commercial farm operations that from time to time generate noise, dust, odor, and other negative effects.

Prospective home buyers then can consider the pertinent tradeoffs, weighing the negative impacts against the scenic, cost, and other benefits of living in the rural community. Right-to-farm ordinances are a limited answer to the problems of conflict and incompatible land uses at the agricultural-urban edge. The solution also depends on other and more active measures, especially the planning and design of urban development that is sensitive to agricultural operations and appropriate modifications in farm practices at the edge. But as an informational technique, the ordinances are an important part of the overall strategy for achieving a more peaceful coexistence of agricultural and urban neighbors.


Source: County Right-to-Farm Ordinances in California:An Assessment of Impact and Effectiveness

Matthew Wacker, Alvin D. Sokolow and Rachel Elkins