FAMILY FARM PRESERVATION ACT CLEARS MAJOR HURDLE
By Jeff Helms
Alabama farmers cleared a major hurdle in securing legal protection for their farms Feb. 16 when the Alabama Senate passed the Family Farm Preservation Act by a vote of 30-0.
|The Family Farm Preservation Act passed the Senate with unanimous 30-0 vote.|
Sponsored by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, SB 61 would protect law-abiding farmers from frivolous lawsuits. It does not change environmental rules or protect those who break the law, but does prevent farming operations that abide by current rules and regulations from being declared a public nuisance.
The bill was amended in committee to exclude new and expanding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) that raise pork. There has not been a new swine CAFO built in Alabama since strengthened CAFO rules were adopted in 1999. The bill gives the judge discretion to require the plaintiff to pay the farmer's legal fees, if the lawsuit is deemed frivolous, as outlined in the Alabama Litigation Accountability Act.
Brian Hardin, assistant director of the Department of Governmental and Agricultural Programs of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said the Senate's passage of the Family Farm Preservation Act is a major victory for the state's farmers.
"This is the culmination of the hard work of Federation members and staff over several years," Hardin said. "Without this bill, farmers run a greater risk of being sued by neighbors who do not understand production agriculture. This legislation gives law-abiding farmers some level of assurance they will be able to stay in business and pass their operation on to the next generation."
Hardin praised Benefield for sponsoring the legislation and Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, for getting it on the Senate calendar. Benefield was unable to be at the State House because her husband was hospitalized following an accident. When asked by fellow senators what they could do for her, the colleagues reported she said, "Pass the Family Farm bill."
In Benefield's absence, Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, and Sen. Harri Anne Smith, R-Slocomb, presented the bill to the Senate for a favorable vote. Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, also spoke in favor of the bill, noting it will help keep food production from being exported overseas.
Earlier in the session, Benefield spoke in favor of the bill during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing.
"I grew up on a farm; my parents were poultry growers," Benefield said. "Farming is not (just) a way to make a living. Farming is a way of life.
"I hate to see our country become dependent on foreign countries for our food supply," she continued. "But today, people are not moving to the cities. People have moved to the country. They want to enjoy the lifestyle. But some people who have grown up in the cities move to rural areas, and they don't know what it's like to farm."
Also testifying at the hearing were Morgan County young farmer Jennifer Cruise and Autauga County farmer Andy Wendland. "We are blessed to be able to raise our three children on the farm. We are blessed to be able to have a great relationship with our neighbors," Cruise said. "Yes, there are bad apples out there. This bill is not to protect them. Without this bill we are at risk of having frivolous lawsuits that will drive farmers out of business."
Following the Senate's passage of the legislation, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee held a public hearing Feb. 24 on the bill. More than 25 county leaders of the Alabama Farmers Federation traveled to Montgomery to show their support for the Family Farm Preservation Act.
Lowndes County farmer Richard Holladay and Pike County farmer Frank Talbot testified in support of the legislation.
The House of Representatives was expected to vote on the bill by mid March.