Florida's Right-to-Farm Summary

Legislators proposed a right-to-farm law in Florida as a tool to preserve the state’s landscape and agricultural lands affronted encroached upon by urbanization.1 Since the law was first passed in 1979, the number of farm operators in the state has grown by 25 percent, while the acreage farmed has dropped by 28 percent.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

Florida’s RTF Law at a Glance

Florida’s RTF law provides no explicit protection of farmland from urban development, while it has nonetheless been promoted as a tool that does so.3 Florida’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. In 1979, Florida first introduced protections from nuisance suits for commercial agriculture and farming operations, places, establishments, and facilities. Shortly after, the statute was renamed the “Florida Right to Farm Act” in 1982, with a sweeping preamble that justified its purpose as promoting the “economic self-sufficiency of the people of the state” and “the encouragement, development, improvement, and preservation of agriculture,” alongside the description of agricultural lands as “unique and irreplaceable resources of statewide importance.”4 The amendments defined protected farms as land, buildings, facilities, and machinery and its appurtenances and defined protected farm operations as all conditions or activities by the owner, lessee, agent, independent contractor, or supplier.5 In 1987, an amendment added aquaculture to the definition of farm.6

The meaning of a farming operation can be subject to debate in court. For example, a county accused a farmer of operating a junkyard in an agriculturally zoned area because he kept heavy machinery stored outside, including a Bush Hog and a bulldozer. Initially, the circuit court ruled that the farmer had thirty days to remove the machinery or pay a fine. On reconsideration, however, the district court of appeals ruled that the lower court violated the farmer’s right to due process by not allowing him to present evidence showing his machinery was farm equipment, a point that, if proved, would have protected him under the RTF definition of a farm.7

Conditions and Activities

Since 1979, Florida’s RTF law has protected operations once they are up and running for a year, as long as the operation was not a nuisance at the time it began.8 In addition, farm operations receive such protections in the event the area around the operations changes.

The 1982 amendments markedly expanded the protections afforded to farm operations. Namely, a farm operation can expand within its boundaries and still maintain the same established date of operation. The amendments also allow the operation to maintain the original establishment date, even if the ownership or the type of product produced changes. The expansion is not protected if it results in a more excessive farm operation with regard to noise, odor, dust, or fumes when proximate to an established homestead or business.9 This means the clock does not restart when a farm changes, for example, from a corn field to a concentrated animal feeding operation unless it is proximate to an established homestead or business. The 1982 amendments also expanded protections by shielding farm operations from 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).10

The amendments also stipulate four conditions that result in forfeited RTF protections for operations: (1) untreated or improperly treated human waste, garbage, offal, dead animals, waste materials, or gases that harm humans or animals; (2) improper septic tanks, water closets, or privies; (3) keeping diseased animals, unless in accordance with disease control programs; and (4) the unsanitary slaughtering of animals.11 The 1982 amendments also made protections subject to farms using generally accepted agricultural and management practices, and in 1993 the law added explicit protection to changes related to the adoption of best management practices.12

The meaning of “excessive” and “generally accepted agriculture practices” often plays out in court, as they are not defined in the law. In one case, Pasco County charged Tampa Farm Service Inc., a farm operation housing 1.5–2 million chickens, with violating its waste and garbage disposal ordinances. The county made the charge after the corporation started to apply wet instead of dry manure on its land. In return, the company filed suit against the enforcement of the ordinance. The trial court initially determined that the company’s activities were protected under the Florida Right to Farm Act. However, the appellate court disagreed, arguing that it mattered how disruptive the agricultural practice was, stating, “Even if a practice is agriculturally acceptable, it may cause unreasonable degradation for the established neighborhood.” The court ruled, however, that “excessive” does not include minor odor changes or minimal degradation. The case was remanded for a new trial to determine whether the change in methods substantially degraded the locale and, if so, whether the country regulations were valid regarding traditional nuisance suits.13

In a more recent class action case, property owners sued a sugarcane corporation over preharvest sugarcane burning, but the court used the RTF law to rule that burning was an acceptable agricultural practice, even though it also affirmed that burning emitted pollutants.14 In a separate case, Northeast Concepts Inc. and a resident were ordered by the Department of Environmental Protection to stop burning brush and cutting woodlands in a buffer zone. In addition, an injunction was filed by the Town of Holland to stop the operation, but the Northeast Concepts company prevailed, successfully utilizing the RTF defense to claim agriculture was exempt.15

Local Governance

In 2000, the RTF law was amended to specifically limit local government’s power. The RTF law (and a related one) stipulates that local governments cannot adopt policies that limit the activities of a “bona fide farm operation” on land classified as agricultural.16 However, this limitation of local government applies only when the farm activities utilize best management practices or other measures developed by the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, or water management districts. For example, a county issued a stop-work order to Mariculture Technologies International, Inc., which was expanding its operations by digging more ponds. However, the corporation claimed its right to farm superseded the county’s excavation ordinance, and the county later determined it had no legal authority to issue or maintain the stop-work order.17

Still, local governments can protect wellfield areas, which are designated by local governments to protect the groundwater sourced by a well that people draw from.18 In addition, urban counties with a population over 1.5 million people and more than twenty-five municipalities can enact ordinances, regulations, or other measures necessary to carry out environmental programs.19

However, a separate law called the Agricultural Lands and Practices Act prohibits counties from enforcing wetland, spring protection, or stormwater ordinances, regulations, or rules adopted after July 1, 2003. Such ordinances and the like can be upheld at the county level only if they adhere to state agency or water management district mandates.20 In practice, the Agricultural Lands and Practices Act further constrains county-level capacity to adopt intensive agriculture ordinances.21 Further, it is not clear how the difference between a wellfield and a spring are determined. As a result of the Agricultural Lands and Practices Act, the RTF statute, and other related laws, courts have ruled that local governments can adopt only those ordinances restricting farming activities that existed before the RTF law.22

Nonetheless, the RTF law does not always prevail over local law. For example, buildings constructed on land classified as agricultural may be subject to residential zoning regulations, as long as the regulations do not limit the operations of the “bona fide” farm operation.23

Environmental Laws

Local government has limited authority to prevent the clearing of agricultural land, which has resulted in ample controversy.24 For example, the Florida Wildlife Federation sued Collier County, alleging that it was impermissibly allowing “HHH Ranch” to perform agricultural land clearing on 604 acres of occupied Florida panther and red-cockaded woodpecker habitat in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The court dismissed the claim relative to HHH Ranch, because the land was classified as agricultural.25

In accordance with the Florida Pesticide Law, no local government, agency, commission, or department can adopt laws, rules, or policies that determine whether pesticides are injurious to the environment. Only Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services can determine as much by adopting from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide rules.26

  • 1. Fla. Stat. § 823.14(2) (2021).
  • 2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1979 Survey, Florida, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed December 10, 2020, https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/results/5BC82FC8-4457-3366-A60B-DB3E8859704F; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Florida,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022, https://www.nass.usda.gov/Quick_Stats/Ag_Overview/stateOverview.php?state=FLORIDA.
  • 3. See Lisa Schuchman, “Development Endangering U.S. Farmland,” Palm Beach Post, July 15, 1993. The article states that the American Farmland Trust advocated strengthening right-to-farm laws to preserve farmland.
  • 4. Fla. Stat. § 823.14(2) (2021).
  • 5. Fla. Stat. § 823.14(3)(a)–(b) (2021).
  • 6. Fla. Stat. § 823.14(3)(a) (2021).
  • 7. Kupke v Orange Cty., 838 So. 2d 598 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2003).
  • 8. Fla. Stat. § 823.14 (2021).
  • 9. Fla. Stat. § 823.14(5) (2021).
  • 10. Fla. Stat. § 823.14(4)(a) (2021).
  • 11. Fla. Stat. § 823.14(4)(a)(1)–(4) (2021).
  • 12. Fla. Stat. § 823.14 (4)(a)–(b) (2021).
  • 13. Pasco Cty. v. Tampa Farm Service, 573 So. 2d 909 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1990).
  • 14. Coffie v. Fla. Crystals Corp., 460 F. Supp. 3d 1297 (S.D. Fla. 2020).
  • 15. Patty Lawrence, “Farmer Prevails in Case against Town; Exemption Allows Burning of Brush,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, May 1, 2010.
  • 16. Fla. Stat. § 823.14 (2021); Fla. Stat. § 163.3162(3)(a) (2021).
  • 17. Mariculture Tech. Intl. v. Volusia Cty., No. 6:11-cv-996-Orl-31DAB, 2011 WL 4596457 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 3, 2011).
  • 18. Fla. Stat. § 823.14 (2021); Fla. Stat. § 373.4592 (2021).
  • 19. Fla. Stat. § 163.3162(3)(g) (2021).
  • 20. Fla. Stat. § 163.3162(I)(1)(3)(i)(3) (2021).
  • 21. Greg C. Brunos, “Agricultural Bill Causing a Stir,” Gainesville Sun, May 31, 2003.
  • 22. Wilson v. Palm Beach Co., 62 So. 3d 1247 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2011).
  • 23. 2009-26 Fla. Op. Att’y Gen. (June 15, 2009); 2001-71 Fla. Op. Att’y Gen. (Oct. 10, 2001 see also Shemir Wiles, “AG Rules in Barn Exemption—State Official Ruling Leaves Final Decision Up to County Leaders,” Citrus County Chronicle (Crystal River, Fla.), June 15, 2009.
  • 24. Eric Staats, “Farm Loophole Allows Permits for Clearing Sensitive Land—Federal, State Agencies That Require Wildlife Protections Don’t Review Requests Beforehand ofCounty Deems They Fall under Right to Farm Act,” Naples (Fla.) Daily News, August 26, 2006.
  • 25. Fla. Panthers v. Collier Co., No. 2:13-cv-612-FtM-29DNF, 2014 WL 2742826 (M.D. Fla. June 17, 2014).
  • 26. Fla. Stat. § 487.011(1)–(2) (2021).