Georgia's Right-to-Farm Summary

Georgia legislators passed the right-to-farm law in 1980, proclaiming it a tool to reduce the state’s loss of agricultural and forest land resources.1 Yet since first enacted, the state has lost 30 percent of its farming operations, alongside 32 percent of its farmland.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

Georgia’s RTF Law at a Glance

Georgia’s RTF law provides no explicit protection for farmland. Rather Georgia’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. Since its beginning, Georgia’s RTF law has protected agricultural operations from either private or public nuisance suits. Nuisances in Georgia generally mean anything that causes hurt, inconvenience, or damage to another.3 Georgia clarifies public nuisances as those those that damage all people within the sphere of operations, with varying effects on individuals.4 Private nuisances, then, are injurious effects limited to one or a few individuals.5

A 1988 amendment to the state’s RTF nuisance suit now shields most production and processing activities related to agriculture from nuisance suits. Protected agricultural operations are defined sweepingly, including plowing soil and harvesting crops, applying chemicals, and all activities related to farm animals—from breeding to processing, producing, and packaging egg products, manufacturing feed, and commercial aquaculture.6 The same amendment also extended protections to facilities, which among other things are defined as buildings, structures, ponds, or machinery used for the commercial production or processing of crops, livestock, poultry, and related products.7 In a 2004 case, a couple operating a fourteen-head cattle breeding business at a loss were not able to claim an RTF defense, as the court ruled that their cattle did not qualify as an agricultural operation because the couple made around $194,000 annually as airline pilots.8

More recently, a 2004 amendment extended protections again by broadly defining “agricultural areas” as places protected from nuisance suits. This includes agricultural areas declared so by zoning or regulations, but it also assumes that any land not zoned or regulated when the operation or facility starts qualifies as an agricultural area.9 That same year, forest and related products were afforded protections, including agricultural support facilities like food processing plants or forest processing plants. However, rendering plant facilities—where animal tissues are created into other materials—are explicitly not protected in the law, unlike in Arkansas.10 For example, homeowners and residents sued a waste disposal facility and associated parties, including the farm that housed it. They alleged that the farm collected human and commercial waste and then sprayed it through a sprinkler system, generating odor, attracting pests, and damaging their ability to use and enjoy their adjacent properties. The facility tried to claim RTF protection, but the court ruled that the site in question was not an agricultural facility but rather a waste disposal facility.11

Prior to the 2004 amendments, a utility pole manufacturing plant tried to use the RTF law in its defense when a homeowner sued the company for interfering with her use of her property. The court found in 1985 that the agricultural inputs of the manufacturing plant were not enough to title the plant an agricultural operation.12 However, after the 2004 amendment extended protections to agricultural support facilities, a similar case had opposite results, where the court ruled that a paper mill qualified for RTF protections as long as the plaintiffs could not prove it was operating illegally, improperly, or negligently.13

Two state amendments are remarkable for their unusual specificity and deviation from more traditional RTF protections. Georgia is the only state nationally that includes people (in this case, migrant farmworkers) as part of facilities. Georgia legislators in 1989 added farm labor camps or facilities for farmworkers to the list of entities protected from nuisance suits. In 2007, an amendment also added manufacturers, distributors, and those storing gypsum rock (used to make cement and plaster, among other things) to the list of those afforded RTF protections from nuisance suits.14

Conditions and Activities

Once up and running for a year, Georgia’s RTF law protects agricultural operations from nuisance suits if the conditions around them change. Originally, Georgia’s RTF law protected agricultural and farming operations that were there first. In a 1981 case involving a concentrated chicken and egg production facility, the court ruled that agricultural facilities had to be “in existence at least one year prior to the change in conditions in the locality in order to receive protection.” The court interpreted this as protecting existing farming operations from encroachment by nonagricultural uses of land, but not protecting a change in farm operations while surrounding nonagricultural operations remained unchanged.15

However, the sweeping 1988 amendments provided protections for operations even if they expanded or adopted new technology. In practice, this can mean that neighbors are not considered to predate an operation if it changes from less to more intensive production. A 2002 amendment later defined changed conditions as the conversion of an area to residential use or an increased number of residences.16 Changed conditions also can include improvements on neighboring land that come closer to an agricultural facility after its first year of operation.

Operations are not protected if a nuisance results from negligent (failing to take proper care), improper (not in line with honest standards), or illegal operations. One court found that “negligent” and “improper” do not include the emission of hydrogen sulfide gas from a Georgia-Pacific products plant, because such emissions do not violate any rule, regulation, or standard.17

Recently Proposed Amendments

The controversial “Georgia Right to Farm Act of 2020,” likely the most heavily lobbied bill of the session, passed the Georgia Senate but failed to reach the House floor.18 The sweeping bill sought to change the law so that courts automatically awarded attorney fees to agricultural operations that successfully defended themselves, but not the other way around (when plaintiffs won). The bill also sought to strike RTF stipulations that operations are protected only relative to when they start and when they have not changed their conditions. Further, the RTF bill sought to limit the filing of nuisance suits to only two years after the alleged nuisance occurred. Current law allows suits to be filed for up to four years.19 The proposed bill, which is expected to be reconsidered in the future, also sought to allow only those who own the property and live within five miles of the source of the activity to file suit. In practice, this could limit the filing of lawsuits by those who live downstream and by those affected who are not direct owners, like family members, renters, or those without clear titles on their property (heir property owners).20

  • 1. Ga. Code § 41-1-7 (2021).
  • 2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1980 Survey, Georgia, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed December 13, 2020,; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Georgia,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022,
  • 3. Ga. Code § 41-1-1 (2021).
  • 4. Ga. Code § 41-1-2 (2021).
  • 5. Ga. Code § 41-1-2 (2021).
  • 6. Ga. Code § 41-1-7(b)(3)(A)–(K) (2021).
  • 7. Ga. Code § 41-1-7(b)(2) (2021).
  • 8. Condon v. Vickery, 606 S.E.2d 336 (Ga. Ct. App. 2004)
  • 9. Ga. Code § 41-1-7(b)(1) (2021).
  • 10. Ga. Code § 41-1-7(b)(3.1) (2021).
  • 11. Alexander v Hulsey Envtl. Servs., Inc., 702 S.E.2d 435 (Ga. Ct. App. 2011).
  • 12. Roberts v S. Wood Piedmont Co., 328 S.E.2d 391 (Ga. Ct. App. 1985).
  • 13. Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products, LP v. Ratner, 812 S.E.2d 120 (Ga. Ct. App. 2018).
  • 14. Ga. Code § 41-1-7(b)(4.2) (2021).
  • 15. Herrin v. Opatut, 281 S.E.2d 575 (Ga. 1981).
  • 16. Ga. Code § 41-1-7(b)(5) (2021).
  • 17. Georgia-Pacific Consumer Prods., 812 S.E.2d 120.
  • 18. Dave Williams, “Right to Farm Act Narrowly Clears Georgia Senate,” Moultrie (Ga.) Observer, June 18, 2020; Jim Galloway, “AJC Exclusive—Behind Stalled Agriculture Bill Is Farmer vs. Farmer,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 26, 2020.
  • 19. Ga. Code § 9-3-32 (2021).
  • 20. Dave Williams, “Right to Farm Debate Likely to Return to General Assembly,” Moultrie Observer, November 29, 2020; Jim Galloway, “AJC Exclusive—Behind Stalled Agriculture Bill Is Farmer vs. Farmer.”