**This article is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.**
An interesting decision interpreting the Tennessee Right to Farm Act was issued by the Tennessee Supreme Court yesterday.
The lawsuit, Shore v. Maple Lane Farms, LLC, was based on an issue that arose between neighbors in rural Blount County. Maple Lane Farms began in the mid-1980’s as a family operation raising cattle, corn, vegetables, strawberries and pumpkins. Over the years, Maple Lane diversified their operation and began to offer various activities for visitors of the farm. These included strawberry picking festivals, inflatables, corn mazes, hay rides, pumpkin patches, and antique shoes. During these events, Maple Lane began hosting music concerts. This diversification proved lucrative for Maple Lane, as they accounted for approximately 75% of the farm’s income from 2006-2008.
In 2003, Mrs. Shore moved to a subdivision adjacent to Maple Lane. Although Mrs. Shore enjoyed some of the events at Maple Lane, she complained about the noise, traffic congestion, and left over trash that occurred after the music concerts. Mrs. Shore sought relief from various county boards and eventually, after a number of appeals by both parties, the county Zoning Board ruled that Maple Lane could hold only one concert per year. Maple Lane disregarded the decision, reasoning that their farm was an agricultural activity that was exempt from regulation and was protected by the Tennessee Right to Farm statute.
Ms. Shore filed suit against Maple Lane Farms seeking a declaration that the music concerts constituted a nuisance and were not protected by the Right to Farm Act and were subject to zoning regulations.
Both the trial court and Court of Appeals dismissed Ms. Shore’s lawsuit, finding that the activities were agricultural in nature. The trial court found that Maple Lane Farms was an active farming operation under the Tennessee Right to Farm Act and that Ms. Shore did not rebut the presumption in the Right to Farm Act that farming operations were not a nuisance. In affirming this decision, the Court of Appeals found that the activities at Maple Lane were agritourism, which is the equivalent of agriculture under the Right to Farm Act. Ms. Shore appealed the decision of the Court of Appeals.
The Tennessee Right To Farm Act
As I have previously discussed on this blog, all 50 states have enacted Right to Farm legislation. Although the laws vary greatly from state to state, their general purpose is to protect agricultural operations from nuisance lawsuits from neighbors complaining about the smells, sounds, and other effects of agriculture. To review a blog describing the Texas Right to Farm Act, click here.
Under the Tennessee law (read the full Tennessee Right to Farm Act here), farms and farm operations are given a rebuttable presumption that they are not nuisances. In order for a plaintiff to overcome this presumption and succeed in a lawsuit, he or she must prove that the farm does not conform to generally accepted practices or does not comply with applicable statutes or regulations.
“Farm” is defined as the “land, buildings, and machinery used in the commercial production of farm products and nursery stock…”
“Farm operation” is defined as “a condition or activity that occurs on a farm in connection with the commercial production of farm products or nursery stock…and includes, but is not limited to: marketed produce at roadside stands or farm markets; noise; odors; dust; fumes; operation of machinery and irrigation pumps; ground and aerial seeding and spraying; the application of chemical fertilizers, conditioners, insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides; and the employment and use of labor.
“Farm products” are defined as “plants and animals useful to man” including “forages and sod crops; grains and feed crops; dairy and dairy products; poultry and poultry products; livestock, including breeding and grazing; fruits; vegetables; flowers; seeds; grasses; trees; fish; apiaries; equine and other similar products; or any other product that incorporates the use of food, seed, fiber or fur.”
The Supreme Court Decision
In a unanimous opinion (read the full opinion here), the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ dismissal of the lawsuit, finding that the Tennessee Right to Farm Act does not apply to music concerts. The Supreme Court said that the lower courts “overlooked” the threshold issue of whether the activities complained of were covered by the Right to Farm Act. The court explained that the “Tennessee Right to Farm Act does not extend nuisance protection to all activities occurring on a farm.” Instead, the protection is applicable only to the land, buildings and machines used in commercial production of farm products. The mere fact that some farming activity occurs at Maple Lane farms was insufficient; the question, instead was whether the music concerts that Ms. Shore complained of were part of a farm operation as covered by the Act. The Supreme Court found that the concerts did not fall under this definition because the music concerts “bore no relation to the production of cattle, corn, vegetables, strawberries, or pumpkins at Maple Land Farms.”
The court also found that the music concerts did not meet the definition of “agriculture” to be exempt from county zoning regulation.
The lower courts’ decisions were reversed and the case was remanded.
What Does This Decision Mean?
As the Tennessee Supreme Court noted, agriculture is changing, and it is likely that these issues will continue to arise across the country. Producers and landowners are diversifying and adding different types of activities to their farms in order to generate income. Other examples of this type of diversification include hunting leases, roadside vegetable and fruit stands, and pumpkin patches. Whether these activities will fall within the protection of a state right to farm act will depend on the specific language of the act and the specific facts of each case. Although this decision was interpreting Tennessee law and would not be binding on a Texas Court, it could be used by a plaintiff as persuasive authority to argue that alterative activities do not fall within right to farm protections if a similar case arose in our state. It is important that producers consider the scope of their state’s Right to Farm protection when deciding whether to diversify their operations.