California's Right-to-Farm Summary

Advocates at the state and county level contend that California’s right-to-farm law protects farmland by safeguarding agricultural practices.1 Yet since the state’s RTF law was passed in 1981, California has lost 16 percent of its farms and 28 percent of its farmland.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

California’s RTF Law at a Glance

California’s RTF law provides no explicit protection for farmland. Rather, California’s RTF law, like those present in the other forty-nine states, centers on protecting certain types of operations from nuisance suits when they impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution. California’s RTF protections apply to either private nuisance suits (those brought by people, like neighbors) or public nuisance suits (those brought by the government on behalf of the general public).

While California’s farmers and ranchers are broadly concerned with the loss of farmland due to urban growth, their support of measures to protect land from development through easements, trusts, and zoning has been mixed.3 Instead, advocates have introduced and passed a RTF law with broad support at the state level since 1981 and since then through county-level ordinances.4

The state’s RTF law generally protects any practices performed by a farmer or on a farm, such as the preparation, delivery, and storage of agriculture commodities incident to or in conjunction with those farming operations. The statute specifically protects the cultivation and tillage of soil, dairy operations, and the production of any agricultural commodity, including timber, viticulture, apiculture, horticulture, livestock, fur-bearing animals, fish, and poultry.5

Conditions and Activities

Only commercial agricultural operations, activities, and facilities receive California’s RTF protections. In 2012, the owners of an eighty-acre parcel sued their county over an ordinance that mandated the removal of their sixty roosters and forty hens within the county’s unincorporated area, claiming RTF defense. However, the court ruled that their activities did not qualify as commercial, neither in terms of a local county ordinance nor in terms of the state’s RTF law. Further, the court ruled that the county had the right to pass such an ordinance. Even though the owners had raised chickens for a decade, the court stated that “poultry hobbyists” who raised chickens for hobby, pleasure, and show were not afforded RTF protections.6

For commercial operations to receive protections, they must use generally accepted practices similar to those used by other operations. What constitutes accepted practices is not defined in the statute but rather plays out in court. In a 1996 case, when ranch owners did not provide evidence that their bird farming activities met acceptable standards or were in existence for three years, they did not receive RTF protections.7 However, in a 2019 case, Olivera Egg Ranch LLC, which housed between 650,000 and 700,000 hens, produced about 468,000 eggs daily, and generated about 142,670 pounds of chicken manure daily, was able to effectively claim RTF as a defense. Here, the court ruled that “despite the number of complaints about odor and flies,” the operation provided “substantial evidence to suggest that the ranch operated within the norms of the agricultural region and eventually implemented manure management measures that surpassed local standards.”8

Agricultural operations receive RTF protections after they have been in operation for three years. If the conditions in or around the facility change after that time period and the operation was not a nuisance at the time it began, the operation still receives RTF protections.9 Agricultural operations that change their methods or the commodity they produce have effectively claimed an RTF defense in court, even though such protection is not explicitly provided in California’s RTF law. In court, agricultural operations that experienced increased irrigation runoff after introducing a new crop used an RTF defense in order to not be found a nuisance or negligent and to evade requests for injunctive relief based on claims of alleged property damage from adjacent landowners.10

Nonetheless, agricultural operations remain subject to other applicable state and federal statutes and regulations.11 In a 2007 court ruling over a private nuisance suit, a composting operation did not receive RTF protection because it did not comply with its use permits or requests from regulatory agencies to take measures to reduce its odor and suppress its dust.12

However, California’s statutes and regulations related to health and safety sometimes provide exceptions for agricultural operations not afforded to other industries. For example, the state’s health and safety code bars the discharge of air contaminants and other materials that “endanger the comfort, repose, health or safety of any of those persons or the public.” Yet, the law makes an exception for agricultural operations, saying that the law does not apply to their odors, animal waste products, compost green material, or compost facilities and operations.13

Courts have also interpreted the state’s RTF law to bar nuisance action brought by one commercial agricultural entity against another, although this is not explicitly stated in the RTF statute.14

Local Governance

California’s RTF statute law supersedes any local regulations. However, many counties have passed ordinances that bolster the state’s RTF law, providing even further protections for agricultural operations. These county-level ordinances often hold up in court. In 2002, an environmental organization lost a suit against a county board of supervisors for adopting a revised version of the RTF law. The organization had tried to claim that the RTF law violated an environmental state law.

California delegates the responsibility to implement state and federal environmental laws to counties or regional boards. The state’s water quality control law asserts that a regional board should, “in its judgement[,] . . . ensure the reasonable protection of beneficial uses and the prevention of nuisance.” This gives regional boards flexibility in establishing their own standards, which means some counties may have more or less exemptions for agricultural operations depending on what standards are set by their regional boards.

California elsewhere treats “excess pesticide residue as public nuisance” in its agricultural code. County-level district attorneys can take civil action to abate such nuisances. It is not entirely clear how this statute interacts with the state’s RTF law.

In 1992, the RTF law was amended to allow cities and counties to require that prospective homeowners be given notice that certain properties are proximate to nuisance-causing agriculture activities.

  • 1. Dennis Wyatt, “Raising a Stink over Farming? Time to Chill,” Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin, December 30, 2016; Tom Hannigan, “Capitol Report,” Sacramento News-Ledger, April 1, 1981.
  • 2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1981 Survey, California, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed November 30, 2020,; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: California,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022,
  • 3. Laura Holson, “Farms Fear Urban Encroachment, FSU Study Says,” Fresno Bee, October 15, 1992; Ket Miller, “Housing or Farms: A Clash of Dreams,” Santa Maria (Calif.) Times, January 30, 2005.
  • 4. Henry Schacht, “The Push for Farmland Preservation in California,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 11, 1993; John Holland, “National Leaders in Ag Preservation Gather in Modesto,” Modesto (Calif.) Bee, October 4, 2015; Thy Vo, “Program Aims to Keep Farmland for Farms—County Would Buy Easements to Block Development on the Properties,” Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.), January 28, 2019
  • 5. Cal. Civ. Code § 3482.5(e) (2021).
  • 6. Rivera v. County of Solano, No. A133616, 2012 WL 3871930 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 7, 2012).
  • 7. Mohilef v. Janovici, 51 Cal. App. 4th 267 (1996).
  • 8. Acoba v. Olivera Egg Ranch, LLC, No. H041585, 2019 WL 5882157 (Cal. Ct. App. Nov. 12, 2019).
  • 9. Cal. Civ. Code § 3482.5(a)(1) (2020).
  • 10. Basor v. Rocha, No. H023805, 2004 WL 859285 (Cal. Ct. App. Apr. 22, 2004); Rancho Viejo, LLC v. Tres Amigos Viejos, LLC, 100 Cal. App. 4th 550 (2002); Souza v. Lauppe, 59 Cal. App. 4th 865 (1997); W&W El Camino Real, LLC v. Fowler, 226 Cal. App. 4th 263 (2014).
  • 11. Cal. Civ. Code § 3482.5(a)(1), (c) (2021).
  • 12. Preserve Country Neighborhoods v. Mendocino Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, No. A109635, 2007 WL 1810692 (Cal. Ct. App. June 25, 2007).
  • 13. Cal. Health & Safety Code § 41700(a), (b) (2021).
  • 14. Souza, 59 Cal. App. 4th 865.