Iowa Supreme Court backtracks on constitutionality of right-to-farm law

by Gary Taylor

Garrison v. New Fashion Pork, LLP
Iowa Supreme Court, June 30, 2022

Iowa Code 657.11 provides statutory immunity to animal agriculture producers against nuisance suits, commonly called Iowa’s “right-to-farm” law. Section 2 allows neighboring landowners to bring successful nuisance suits against such producers only if the producer fails to comply with state and federal regulations applicable to animal feeding operations, or if (1) the producer’s operation unreasonably and for substantial periods of time interferes with the person’s comfortable use and enjoyment of the persons life and property, and (2) the operation failed to use existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation. In 2004 in the case of Gacke v. Pork Xtra, Iowa Code 657.11 was ruled unconstitutional by the Iowa Supreme Court as applied to the facts of that case. Somewhat unusually, the Court did not base its ruling in Gacke on a Takings analysis, but rather on the Inalienable Rights clause of the Iowa Constitution (Article I, Section 1). It states:

All men and women are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights-among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.

Iowa Constitution, Article I, Section 1

In 1972, Gordon Garrison purchased approximately 300 acres of farmland in Emmet County. He lives on the property in a home built in 1999. He at one point owned a 500-head ewe flock and could have over 1,000 animals on his property each birthing season. The sheep were kept in a barn most of the winter. After the 1980s, the size of his flock began to decrease. Some of his land continues to be farmed, but most of his acreage “is being cared for in restoration of the ‘Prairie Pothole’ ecology that was indigenous to northwest Iowa.”

In December 2015, New Fashion Pork (NFP) started operating a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) uphill and adjacent to Garrison’s property. NFP’s subsidiary, BWT Holdings, owns additional land adjacent to Garrison’s property for disposal of manure. The confinement building is approximately a half-mile away from Garrison’s property line and is permitted to hold 4,400 to 8,800 hogs depending on their weight. The defendants put pattern tiling in the BWT property, which Garrison claims led to substantially more drainage flowing to his property. According to Garrison, in the fall of 2016, NFP’s “manure application was done when the field was saturated with water so the field could not absorb the manure and the manure discharged to [his] property.” In December 2018, NFP applied manure to frozen ground in violation of state regulations. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources entered a consent order under which the defendants paid an administrative penalty of $4,800 for that violation. From 2016 to 2020, Garrison documented the times that he smelled the CAFO’s odor – more than 100 days of the year, sometimes all day. The odor interferes with his enjoyment of working outdoors, going on walks around his property, and his sleep. His son confirmed the odor can be very pervasive depending on the wind direction.

The relevant portion of this lengthy opinion is the Supreme Court’s discussion, and ultimate overruling, of its own decision in Gacke. It began by noting that Gacke is an outlier. All fifty states have right-to-farm laws that provide farmers with various forms of statutory immunity from nuisance claims similar to section 657.11(2); however, Iowa is the only state to hold that the statutory immunity available under its right-to-farm law is unconstitutional in any manner. Gacke created a three-part test to determine whether a neighboring landowner could avoid the nuisance immunity protections offered by section 657.11(2): whether the plaintiffs can show they (1) received no particular benefit from the nuisance immunity granted to the agricultural operation other than that inuring to the public in general, (2) sustained significant hardship, and (3) resided on their property long before any animal operation was commenced. If the neighboring landowners were able to prove all three factors then they will have demonstrated that the law’s grant of immunity violated their inalienable rights granted by the Iowa Constitution.

After a review of caselaw from Iowa and other jurisdictions the current Iowa Supreme Court determined that the three-part test in Gacke was “created out of whole cloth,” engenders unnecessary litigation and is difficult to administer, and must be overruled. “Stare decisis does not prevent the court from reconsidering, repairing, correcting or abandoning past judicial announcements when error is manifest . . . and stare decisis has limited application in constitutional matters.”

Rather than apply the three-part test, the appropriate analysis under an inalienable rights claim is to determine whether there was a “rational basis” for the enactment of Section 657.11(2). The rational basis test is “highly deferential” to governments’ actions: the litigant challenging the local government action “must refute every reasonable basis upon which the statute could be found to be constitutional.” In the present case the Court determined that a rational basis exists for the legislature to promote farming, and that reducing nuisance liability is a proper means to that end.

Turning to the facts of this case, because Garrison relied solely on the constitutional argument at trial he presented no witnesses, expert or otherwise, to testify as to the prudence or general acceptance of any farm management practices, or to set a standard as to existing generally accepted management practices. He failed to identify any alternative technologies and approaches that would be considered “existing prudent generally accepted management practices.” Likewise, he identified no evidence that Defendants departed from any standard industry practices. He therefore failed to meet his burden of proving that he qualified for any of the exceptions to the nuisance immunity protection of 657.11.

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