Ag producers, advocates want decades old Right to Farm Act updated

By Emily Crowe

CNJ STAFF WRITER

ecrowe@cnjonline.com

Farmers and dairymen have seen their fair share of hardships in recent years, including drought and rising operating costs.

Most recently, nuisance complaints from neighbors have caused a string of lawsuits against dairies statewide, and many producers and advocates are asking for clearer legislation to help prevent further lawsuits from being filed.

Stock image of Cows

Stock image

Walter Bradley with Dairy Farmers of America, Beverly Indsinga with Dairy Producers of New Mexico and attorney T.J. Trujillo presented their case to state legislators during Thursday as part of a three-day legislative water and natural resources committee meeting held in Clovis.

“We have an attack that has been launched against the agriculture industry in the state of New Mexico,” Bradley said. “Since September 2011, 11 dairies have been filed against for temporary nuisance lawsuits by out-of-state lawyers.”

The lawsuits, all filed by the same out-of-state law firm, assert that dairies are causing a nuisance to neighbors because of flies, odor, obstructions, and even loss of property value on nearby land.

According to Bradley, plaintiffs in the cases were solicited by the law firm, and most of them moved near a dairy after the dairy was already established.

“We thought, mistakenly, that our Right to Farm Act would protect us from these types of lawsuits,” Bradley said.

New Mexico’s Right to Farm Act was passed in 1981 to protect agricultural operations from nuisance lawsuits. According to Bradley and Trujillo, the act has an exception clause that is not properly defined within the legislation.

“The text leaves many gaps and ambiguities in protection and what exactly constitutes protection under the act,” Trujillo said.

Specifically, the exception detailing “negligent, improper or illegal operations” has been brought before legislators as not having proper definition, and allowing the out-of-state law firms to make a case against producers.

Clovis dairyman Eddie Schaap co-owns one of the dairies in Hobbs that is currently being taken to court.

“I’m from a dairy family. My parents were born and raised on a farm and milked cows,” he said. “There’s always been flies, there’s always been odor. That’s the way it is on a dairy.”

Schaap said the lawsuit was unexpected and that he doesn’t believe he is doing anything differently than any other dairy owner.

“Some of the accusations that I got thrown at me are unheard of,” he said. “I honestly feel like the goal is to put me out of business.”

Trujillo believes the legislation should be modernized to find a system that can work in New Mexico.

“I would say the Ag Coalition, and especially dairies, believes the New Mexico Right to Farm Act needs to be updated and brought in line with other states to provide greater protection for the agricultural industry,” Trujillo said.

“The rest of the states have advanced and periodically amended it to update with respect to modern agricultural practices,” he said. “The way farming was done two decades ago is very different.”

According to Indsinga, there are 148 dairies in the state, several of which are just barely hanging on.

Dairies have a $2.6 billion impact on the New Mexico economy and provides 3,500 direct jobs and 9,500 indirect jobs, she said. The loss of a single dairy operation would result in a $10.8 million loss to the state.

“The whole Ag Coalition in the state of New Mexico, Farm Bureau, wool growers, chile growers … all of us have joined together to ask you in this upcoming session to help us out with a fix on this legislation,” Bradley said.

Advocates plan to put a bill before the state legislature at its next regular session.