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Who really benefits from Georgia’s ‘Freedom to Farm’ bill?

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A controversial bill making it harder for property owners living in agricultural areas to file nuisance lawsuits against nearby farms or livestock operations got its first airing in a legislative committee Tuesday.

Supporters of the Freedom to Farm Act have inserted changes into the original bill targeting hog farms and chicken houses, livestock operations that tend to draw the most complaints from neighbors of foul smells, dust and water pollution.

Under a substitute measure presented to the House Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee, any existing farm converted to such a “confined animal-feeding operation” (CAFO) would be subject to a nuisance lawsuit within one year of that conversion regardless of how long the original farm was there.

“I heard the problems with CAFOs,” said committee Chairman Robert Dickey, R-Musella. “This takes the CAFO out of that protection.”

But the bill’s opponents said giving neighbors a year to sue a nuisance CAFO is no substitute for current state law, which gives property owners in agricultural areas four years to file nuisance suits.

“[The bill] says, ‘We value newly arriving industrial-scale animal operations’ while ignoring Georgians’ property rights,” said April Lipscomb, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Georgia agribusiness groups have been pushing for several years to change the current law governing nuisance lawsuits, which dates back to the 1980s. They say urban encroachment on historically farming communities has created a need to strengthen the law.

“People who are not farming are moving into agricultural areas,” said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. “It’s very difficult to find a place in Georgia where there’s not non-farming.”

The bill has been endorsed by Giles’ organization as well as the Georgia Farm Bureau and the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

Supporters say the legislation would protect small farmers who may have been farming their property for years from nuisance suits filed by non-farmers who have just moved into a new subdivision.

But opponents say the bill is crafted to favor corporate farming interests.

“This bill isn’t about family farmers,” said Ruth Wilson, who raises horses on a farm in Lexington located near a waste-generating chicken processing plant. “It’s about protecting big corporate farms. … I’m very concerned about farms not safeguarding their wastes.”

The committee didn’t vote on the bill Tuesday. Dickey said the panel will take up the legislation again later this week or next week.

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

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