Good farmers and good neighbors

April 22, 1994

It's a sure sign of rampant suburban and exurban sprawl when government has to pass a law protecting farmers from nuisance suits filed by their indignant citified neighbors.

This month, Harford County became the latest jurisdiction to pass right-to-farm legislation, defending the farmer's right to operate machinery at any time and to work his fields according to accepted agricultural practices.

The noise of farm equipment and livestock in the middle of the night, the smell of manure, the menacing clouds of pesticide sprays -- these are increasingly common complaints of newcomers to the countryside who are not, and have never been, involved with agrarian production.

The farming community knows that nature does not keep regular hours and must be served at its own beckoning if the land is to yield bountiful harvests. Practical, productive farming bears scant resemblance to lawn manicure and rose gardening.

This clash of cultures has provoked lawsuits in the metropolitan area by homeowners seeking to restrict the hours and methods of their farming neighbors. These suits have been rare in Harford, but sufficient to provoke the concern of working farmers, who pointed out this potential legal conflict when the county moved to preserve agricultural land as a public amenity two years ago.

A 1981 state law provides that established agricultural production is not a nuisance, if it conforms to other laws. Because of the law's vague nature, more than half of Maryland's counties have also passed their own laws to further define the degrees of protection. Carroll County got state enabling legislation this year to enact a similar measure, which would create a grievance committee to screen and mediate residential complaints about farming operations.

People who move next to rural fields often find less than idyllic settings, for farms are working businesses, not bucolic preserves or petting zoos. Understanding what goes on in neighboring farms is the primary obligation of the prospective rural resident; if activities associated with farming bother them, homebuyers should look elsewhere.

But in the interests of community peace, farmers also need to be reminded to respect the concerns of non-farming residents. That admonition particularly applies to the use of public roads by farm equipment, as well as to operations on private lands.

Prospective Harford homebuyers should get a copy of the right-to-farm law, to avoid misunderstandings that could create another nuisance.

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