Colorado’s Right-to-Farm Summary

When legislators first passed right-to-farm legislation in 1981, they advocated it as a tool to protect farmland and Colorado family farms.1 Since that time, the number of farms in the state has increased by 43 percent, mostly in the small category, while the acreage in farmland has dropped by 5 percent.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

Colorado’s RTF Law at a Glance

Colorado’s RTF law provides no explicit protection for farmland or family farmers. Rather, like those RTF laws present in the other forty-nine states, it centers on protecting certain types of operations from nuisance suits when their activities impact neighboring property, for example through activities like noise or odor. Protected types of operations are all-encompassing, including horticulture, floriculture, viticulture, forestry, dairy, livestock, poultry, and bee operations, as long as two conditions are met. First, the operation must use methods or practices that are “commonly or reasonably associated with agricultural production.” Second, the operation must have existed before surrounding nonagricultural activities began.3

Conditions and Activities

Colorado’s RTF law allows operations to significantly change and still be considered to exist before their neighbors. The operation’s ownership can change; the type of agricultural product being produced can change; or there can be an interruption or temporary cessation of farming, among other things. Operations can use a new type of technology or participate in a government-sponsored agricultural program. Agricultural operations can substantially increase in size or use methods or practices that are “commonly or reasonably associated with agricultural production.”4

Taken together, RTF protections continue to apply across this suite of changes unless facilities use improper care (that is, negligence).5. Further, RTF protections cannot restrict the state’s Air Quality Control Program or the Water Quality Control Program for “commercial swine feeding operations.”6 These laws have enforceable provisions available to certain local governmental entities and citizens that may address nuisance-like impacts.

Local Governance

Otherwise, local governments do not have the ability to limit or override any of the protections provided by Colorado’s RTF law. For example, a court ruled that a board of county commissioners could not prevent a farmer from moving his mobile sprinkler system across a county road.7 The court stipulated that prohibiting the farmer would be inconsistent with the state’s policy of supporting agricultural operations. However, local governments can regulate agricultural operations located within the limits of any city or town as of July 1, 1981, or agricultural operations located on property that was voluntarily annexed to a municipality on or after July 1, 1981.
In addition, local governments can choose to pass ordinances or resolutions that protect agricultural operations even more than the state’s RTF law does.8

Attorney Fees and Limits on Damages

Under Colorado law, recovery may be limited to either damages for the loss of land value from the nuisance or a permanent injunction to stop the nuisance, if irreversible damage is not already done.9 In addition, whoever the court rules in favor of, either the defendant (typically an agricultural operation) or the plaintiff, can be awarded reasonable attorney fees and costs.10

  • 1. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 35-3.5-101 (2021).
  • 2. U.S. Department of Commerce, “Table 1. Farms, Land in Farms, and Land Use: 1982 and Earlier Census Years,” in 1982 Census of Agriculture, Volume 1: Geographic Area Series, Part 6: Colorado State and County Data, Chapter 1: State Data (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1984),; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Colorado,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022, See Colorado State Demography Office, “Highlights from the 2017 Census of Agriculture,” Crosstabs (blog), January 9, 2020, accessed October 1, 2020, of Agriculture 2017/.
  • 3. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 35-3.5-102 (2021).
  • 4. 2000 Colo. Sess. Laws ch. 66 (S.B. 00-29); Colo. Rev. Stat. § 35-3.5-102 (2021).
  • 5. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 35-3.5-102 (2021).
  • 6. Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 25-7-138, 25-8-501.1, 35-3.5-102 (2021).
  • 7. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs v. Vandemoer, 205 P.3d 423 (Colo. App. 2008).
  • 8. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 35-3.5-102 (2021).
  • 9. Staley v. Sagel, 841 P.2d 379 (Colo. App. 1992).
  • 10. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 35-3.5-102 (2021).