LAWMAKERS URGED TO PASS RIGHT-TO-FARM LEGISLATION
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alabama farmers are calling on the Alabama Legislature to pass right-to-farm legislation they say would not only preserve the state's agricultural heritage, but also sustain its economic growth.
"Agriculture is Alabama's largest industry and employs 20 percent of our workforce," said Alabama Farmers Federation President Jerry A. Newby, a Limestone County cotton, grain and cattle farmer. "Sprawling cities and frivolous lawsuits, however, threaten to force farmers out of business and cripple the economies of rural towns."
That's why Newby and farmers across the state are calling on legislators to pass SB 368, commonly called the Family Farm Preservation Act. The bill would prevent law-abiding farms from being declared a nuisance and would discourage lawsuits against farmers who use approved management practices and obey environmental regulations.
"Farmers who are trying to be good neighbors should not have to worry about being sued or have to spend thousands of dollars defending themselves," Newby said. "Often, lawsuits against farmers are instigated by extreme, out-of-state activists or rural newcomers who don't appreciate the sights, sounds and smells of country living."
SB 368, sponsored by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, would not protect those who break the rules, but Newby said it would provide law-abiding farmers peace of mind that they will not be forced off their land by frivolous lawsuits. Similar legislation has been introduced for the past seven years only to stall in Senate committees. This year, however, the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee chaired by Benefield approved the measure, sending it to the Senate floor.
Newby said education is the key to securing final passage of the bill.
"One of the biggest challenges farmers face today is a lack of understanding among consumers. Most people are two or three generations removed from the land, and they often have misconceptions about how food and fiber is produced," Newby said. "Everyday, we work to educate consumers and foster better relationships between rural and urban residents through programs like Ag in the Classroom and Farm-City Week. But we constantly have to defend ourselves from those who prey on people's fears and spread misinformation."
That type of misinformation has been a major hurdle for the Family Farm Preservation Act. Although Alabama has strict environmental regulations requiring up to a mile buffer between livestock operations and their neighbors, activists have said the bill's passage would result in an influx of new animal agriculture farms.
"This is simply not true," Newby said. "The Family Farm Preservation Act does not change any of our environmental regulations."
Since Alabama's implementation of regulations governing animal feeding operations in April 1999, there has not been a single new pork production facility permitted in the state. Newby said that's because environmental rules require farmers to own so much land it's simply not economically feasible -- a situation that won't change regardless of whether SB 368 passes.
"As farmers, we live close to the land and depend on natural resources for our livelihood," Newby said. "We would never do anything to jeopardize the health of our families or the future of our farms. We want to be good neighbors. We want to be able to pass our farms on to our children. And, we want to continue to produce the safest, most affordable food in the world without the threat of frivolous lawsuits."