Virus Outbreak Georgia

Jerilyn Morgan holds a bushel of kale in her vegetable farm on April 20 in Dawson, Ga.

ATLANTA — While the state’s coronavirus-induced budget deficit will grab the most attention when the General Assembly reconvenes next month, lawmakers also may revisit an issue that’s roiling rural Georgia.

A proposed update of the Georgia Right to Farm Act enacted during the 1980s enjoys the backing of agricultural organizations including the Georgia Farm Bureau, Georgia Agribusiness Council and Georgia Poultry Federation.

“Every serious ag group is in support of this, and it comes from the grass-roots level, from farmers across the state,” said Will Bentley, president of the agribusiness council.

Opposition to the legislation is spearheaded by environmental groups — many based in rural Georgia — who say it not only is unnecessary but would harm farm communities.

“This bill is purported to protect real Georgia farmers,” said Gordon Rogers, executive director of Albany-based Flint Riverkeeper. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The legislation would make it more difficult for property owners living in areas zoned for agricultural use to file nuisance lawsuits against nearby farms generating offensive noise, dust, smells or sludge runoff.

In order to sue, owners would have to live within five miles of the alleged nuisance. In addition, lawsuits would have to be brought within two years after a nuisance occurs, down from four years under the current law.

The Georgia House of Representatives passed the bill last year, and it cleared the Senate Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee in February. But the full Senate tabled the measure when it became clear it didn’t have the votes to pass.

Committee Chairman John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, said this month he plans to bring it back before the Senate in June when lawmakers reconvene a 2020 legislative session suspended in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We think this is a good bill, not just for the farmers of Georgia but for the citizens of Georgia,” Wilkinson, who is running for a Northeast Georgia congressional seat, said May 3 during a Republican candidate debate televised statewide.

Bentley said the impetus behind the legislation is a series of lawsuits in Georgia and other states that have led to court rulings narrowly interpreting the current law in favor of plaintiffs. Updating the law with specific statutory restrictions on lawsuits would strengthen protections for farmers, he said.

“We’re just trying to close the loopholes in existing law so farmers can continue to operate without being subject to frivolous lawsuits,” he said. “(The bill would) ensure farmers have the protections we’ve thought we’ve had since the 1980s.”

But Rogers said the bill is a veiled attempt by Georgia agribusiness interests to open the door to more large livestock operations such as pig farms and chicken houses run by out-of-state corporations. The fight over the legislation pits Georgia’s small and mid-size family farmers against corporate agriculture and vegetable and row-crop farming against “highly concentrated protein production,” he said.

“The bill is really for farmers who are not even here,” Rogers said. “They’re not Georgians. They’re multi-national operations.”

Bentley dismissed the argument that updating the Right to Farm Act is focused solely on animal agriculture. He said the bill also would protect row-crop farmers, since they, too, make noise and raise dust in sufficient quantities to expose themselves to nuisance suits.

“They’re just as vulnerable as any type of livestock operator from being sued,” he said. “They’re at risk as well.”

The coronavirus pandemic also is playing a role in the debate over the bill.

“The coronavirus outbreak has shown us the importance of having Georgia-grown products,” Wilkinson said. “I believe this will be a big step toward doing that.”

But Rogers said the supply-chain interruptions that have accompanied the pandemic point to the significance of having a diverse mix of small farmers on the front lines of American agriculture.

“U.S. farm policy is to go more and more corporate with farms,” he said. “It gets a lot of product to market at reasonable prices, but it’s extremely vulnerable to disruption. … Diversity is more reliant to a shock than much fewer operations.”

With just 11 days left in this year’s legislative session when the General Assembly returns to the Gold Dome, the bill’s prospects are uncertain.

Bentley said the measure faces difficult timing, having lost momentum to the suspension of the session and to the legislature’s singular focus on plugging a $3 billion to $4 billion fiscal 2021 budget gap.

Rogers said lawmakers may not be willing to put in the time required to pass the bill on the Senate floor.

“It’s highly controversial,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said for not burning up two hours of floor time with indeterminate results.”

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