Iowa's Right-to-Farm Summary

Legislators justified Iowa’s suite of right-to-farm laws as a tool to preserve “private property rights” and “the availability and use of agricultural land for agricultural production.”1 Yet since such legislation was first enacted by name in 1982, the number of farm operations in Iowa has dropped by 33 percent and the number of acres farmed by 10 percent.2 So what do Iowa’s RTF laws do in practice?

Iowa’s RTF Law at a Glance

Iowa’s RTF laws do not protect land from urban sprawl, nor do they protect private property rights broadly. Like those present in the other forty-nine states, Iowa’s RTF laws protect animal feeding operations (AFOs) and farming operations from nuisance suits when their activities impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution.3 Iowa specifically defines nuisances as the construction of buildings that emit noxious odors and offensive smells that interfere with the health, comfort, or property of individuals or the public; water pollution; and the collection of offal or filthy or noisome substances.4 Iowa defines farming operations broadly and includes any condition or activity that occurs on a farm in connection with the production of farm products and crop raising and storage; the care or feeding of livestock; disposal of related wastes; the marketing of products; the creation of noise, odor, dust, or fumes; the application of chemical fertilizers, conditioners, insecticides, pesticides, or herbicides; and the employment and use of labor.5

In addition to protecting farming operations at large, Iowa also safeguards from nuisance suits those areas zoned as agricultural, understood as a designated parcel of land (generally greater than 300 acres) that encourages agricultural activities related to farm operations.6 According to statutory law, farming operations located in agricultural areas automatically receive protection from nuisance claims regardless of when the farm began operating or whether it has expanded.7 These agricultural areas are designated through county zoning.

Initially, the Iowa Supreme Court in 1998 ruled that these agricultural areas constitute an unjust taking, violating the constitutional protections of private property ownership. In fact, Iowa—the state with the most hogs in the nation—was the only state where portions of the RTF law were found unconstitutional. In Bormann v. Board of Supervisors, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the state’s RTF law created an easement without just compensation for activities that would have been considered a nuisance if the land had not been designated an agricultural area.8 The Iowa Supreme Court cited the state constitution, noting that it provides for the protection of private property from takings without just compensation.9The Iowa Farm Bureau openly expressed its disappointment with the court ruling.10 In a consequent 2004 case, Gacke v. Pork Xtra, LLC, property owners sued neighboring hog confinement operators for nuisance. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling, confirming that the RTF statute violated Iowa’s constitutional protections against excessive state exercises of power.11 In a 2006 letter, Jeff Vonk—then director for Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources—concurred, calling large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations uncompensated takings by “corporate neighbors.”12 For many years, Iowa courts continued to affirm that the RTF law was in part unconstitutional and thus not a defense if certain conditions are met.13 In 2016, a statewide coalition called for a moratorium on hog confinements, which a spokesperson for then governor Terry Branstad called “extreme.”14 However, these constitutional limits on RTF laws no longer hold. In 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court heard a nuisance case pertaining to a limited liability partnership hog operation and overturned Gacke. The court argued that the three-pronged test for unconstitutionality was an outlier in Iowa law when compared with RTF laws in other states.15Additionally, the court held that the RTF statutes do not constitute an unconstitutional use of state police power. However, the court ruled that nuisance claims are not entirely barred by the RTF laws, as they provide only partial immunity from nuisance claims.16

Conditions and Activities

Iowa’s RTF laws protect farming operations, AFOs, and feedlots from both private nuisance suits (filed by individuals) and public nuisance suits (filed on behalf of the public by the government). Since a 1993 amendment, the plaintiff must first go through the state’s farm mediation service prior to bringing a nuisance lawsuit in court. Farming operations lose nuisance suit protections if they violate federal or state laws; if they are operated negligently; if they pollute waterways or adjacent land; or if they contribute to soil erosion.17

Outside of agricultural areas, RTF protections still exist at large for AFOs and feedlots, which include areas where animals are “totally roofed” and areas used for the confined feeding and growth of animals prior to slaughter.18 RTF protections for livestock feedlots have existed in Iowa since 1976 and apply if the feedlot adheres to both regulatory provisions set forth by Iowa’s Department of Environmental Quality and local zoning ordinances.19 RTF protections for AFOs were enacted in 1995 and apply regardless of when the AFO began or whether it has undergone an expansion. Activities protected include the care or transport of animals; the treatment, disposal, or application of manure; and the creation of noise, odor, dust, or fumes.20 However, nuisance claims can be brought against AFOs if those suing can prove the operation does not use “prudent generally accepted management practices” and that the AFO interferes with the plaintiffs’ reasonable use and enjoyment of their life or property for a substantial period of time.21 In 1996, Iowa’s RTF law was amended to strip protections for AFOs that repeatedly violate state regulations.22 Operations are deemed chronic violators if they incur three or more violations relating to the improper storage and disposal of manure. Penalties assessed for these operations may include a civil penalty greater than $3,000.23

Local Governance

Iowa’s RTF laws authorize counties to designate agricultural areas and create agricultural land preservation areas by passing ordinances to preserve land for agricultural use.24 In addition to allowing for agricultural areas, Iowa’s RTF laws exempt farming operations and land used for soil and water conservation from local zoning ordinances otherwise.25 Attempts to reinstate local control over livestock feeding operations have failed to make their way past the Iowa legislature.26

In effect, Iowa creates two-way zoning for agricultural exceptionalism: establishing agricultural areas with nuisance protections for farming operations and then excluding farming operations from any zoning that would curtail their operations. Animal feedlots, however, can still be subject to local zoning in Iowa if the feedlot’s start date occurs after the enactment date of the local ordinance.27 This exception is only slight, as counties do not have the authority to enact any legislation that regulates the conditions or practices of animal operations unless explicitly allowed by state law.28

The interplay between Iowa’s RTF laws and the power of local government underlies several lawsuits. In 1995, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that a hog confinement facility was exempt from zoning ordinances.29 Similarly, in 1996, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling, finding that a hog facility was exempt from county zoning ordinances as it was an agricultural facility.30 In another case, the Iowa Supreme Court used Iowa’s RTF laws to invalidate four county ordinances, ruling that local governments do not have the authority to regulate agricultural operations and activities or to regulate air pollution.31

Attorney Fees and Limits on Damages

Those filing nuisance lawsuits against farming operations are responsible for attorney fees and damages if the suit is deemed frivolous, meaning that the lawsuit lacks legal substance or merit. This applies to lawsuits against farms in agricultural areas as well as AFOs.32 The opposite, however, is not true, meaning that the defendants (typically agricultural operations) do not have to pay attorney fees and damages if the plaintiff prevails. This and similar language may have a chilling effect on the filing of nuisance suits in favor of industrial operators.33 For example, the Iowa Supreme Court held in a 2020 case that because those suing an AFO had voluntarily dismissed the suit and had no material interest in the property under consideration, they were responsible for attorney fees.34

In a recent addition to Iowa’s RTF laws, there are now specific types of damages that a plaintiff who prevails in a nuisance lawsuit against an AFO may receive.35 If the plaintiff in such a lawsuit wins and the AFO is found to be a nuisance, the plaintiff can receive monetary damages for any diminution in the fair market value of the plaintiff’s property, as well as damages for the plaintiff’s past, present, and future adverse health conditions.36 However, this law on damages applies only to causes of action that arose after March 29, 2017.37

The Iowa Supreme Court has awarded damages to plaintiffs, holding that protections provided by the RTF laws did not disallow collection of past, present, and future damages for the plaintiffs given that the operation began prior to designation of the land as an agricultural area.38 In one closely watched case, the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Pork Producers Association backed a hog confinement sued by a family raising alternative livestock, which predated the confinement.39 To the disappointment of the commodity association and the Farm Bureau, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the hog confinement could be considered a permanent nuisance rather than a temporary one. Damages awarded could then include future ones, like the diminished value of their property.40

Other Related Agricultural Laws

With amendments in 1998 and 2002, Iowa established a commission to regulate construction, expansion, and operation of AFOs and feedlots to protect air and water quality.41 The commission requires AFOs and feedlots to submit plans for manure management, initial construction, and operation expansion, among other things.42 The laws regulating AFO and feedlot pollution have been challenged in court; however, the Iowa Supreme Court has held that the state legislature has the authority to regulate pollution more stringently than what is spelled out in federal laws.43

  • 1. 1982 Iowa Acts 1245, § 12; Bormann v. Bd. of Supervisors, 584 N.W.2d 309 (Iowa 1998). Iowa first extended nuisance protections to livestock feedlots during 1976 and later enacted a suite of nuisance protections referred to as right-to-farm laws during 1982.
  • 2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1976 Survey, Iowa, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed February 5, 2021,; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Iowa,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022,
  • 3. Some Iowa statutes have distinct provisions for AFOs versus general farm operations.
  • 4. Iowa Code § 657.2 (2021).
  • 5. Iowa Code § 352.2(6) (2021).
  • 6. Iowa Code § 352.6(1) (2021).
  • 7. Iowa Code § 352.11(1)(a) (2021).
  • 8. Bormann, 584 N.W.2d 309.
  • 9. Iowa Const. art. I, §§ 1, 18.
  • 10. “Court Shuts Door on ‘Right to Farm’ Law,” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, February 23, 1999.
  • 11. Gacke v. Pork Xtra, LLC,684 N.W.2d 168 (Iowa 2004).
  • 12. Jeff Vonk, “DNR Director Concerned with Property Rights Issues,” Clinton (Iowa) Herald, August 4, 2006.
  • 13. McIlrath v. Prestage Farms of Iowa, LLC, 889 N.W.2d 700 (Iowa Ct. App. 2016); Honomichl v. Valley View Swine, LLC, 914 N.W.2d 223 (Iowa 2018).
  • 14. Rod Boshart, “Iowa Statewide Alliance Calls for Moratorium on Large-Scale Livestock Operations—Halt Sought until Iowa’s Water Quality Improves,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 21, 2016.
  • 15. Garrison v. New Fashion Pork, LLP, 977 N.W.2d 67 (Iowa 2022). This case is not included in the statistical analysis presented in part 1 of the book, as it happened after we closed our search with the end of the calendar year in 2021.
  • 16. Garrison, 977 N.W.2d 67.
  • 17. Iowa Code § 352.11(1)(b) (2021).
  • 18. Iowa Code §§ 172D.1, 657.11(3)(a) (2021).
  • 19. Iowa Code §§ 172D.2, 172D.3, 172D.4 (2021)
  • 20. Iowa Code § 657.11(4) (2021).
  • 21. Iowa Code § 657.11(2)(b) (2021).
  • 22. 1996 Iowa Acts 1118 (S.F. 2375) (amending Iowa Code § 657.11).
  • 23. Iowa Code § 657.11(3)(b) (2021); Rod Boshart, “Senate to Debate Hog-Lot Reform,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 5, 1996.
  • 24. Iowa Code § 335.27 (2021).
  • 25. Iowa Code §§ 335.2, 335.3 (2021).
  • 26. Rod Boshart, “Local Hog-Lot Rules Rejected—Iowa House Approves Livestock Bill, 51–48,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 13, 1998; Kristin Guess, “Legislature Denies 14 Bills on Changing the Master Matrix Provisions for CAFOs,” Waterloo–Cedar Falls Courier, July 29, 2018.
  • 27. Iowa Code § 172D.4(2)(a)–(e) (2021).
  • 28. Iowa Code § 331.304A (2021).
  • 29. Thompson v. Hancock Co., 539 N.W.2d 181 (Iowa 1995).
  • 30. Kuehl v. Cass Co., 555 N.W.2d 686 (Iowa 1996).
  • 31. Goodell v. Humboldt Co., 575 N.W.2d 486 (Iowa 1998).
  • 32. Iowa Code § 352.11(1)(d) (2021). See also Merrill v. Valley View Swine, LLC, 941 N.W.2d 10 (Iowa 2020).
  • 33. Cordon M. Smart, “The ‘Right to Commit Nuisance’ in North Carolina: A Historical Analysis of the Right-to-Farm Act,” North Carolina Law Review 94, no. 6 (2016): 2097–154.
  • 34. Merrill, 941 N.W.2d 10.
  • 35. Iowa Code § 657.11A (2021).
  • 36. Iowa Code § 657.11A(3) (2021).
  • 37. Iowa Code § 657.11A(7) (2021).
  • 38. Weinhold v. Wolff, 555 N.W.2d 454 (Iowa 1996).
  • 39. “Court: Hog Lot Permanent Nuisance,” Dubuque Telegraph Herald, October 24, 1996.
  • 40. Weinhold, 555 N.W.2d 454.
  • 41. 1998 Iowa Acts 1209 (H.F. 2494) (adding Iowa Code § 455B.200, now codified at Iowa Code § 459.103); 2002 Iowa Acts 1137 (S.F. 2293) (amending Iowa Code § 455B.200, now codified at Iowa Code § 459.103).
  • 42. Iowa Code § 459.312 (2021).
  • 43. Freeman v. Grain Processing Corp., 848 N.W.2d 58 (Iowa 2014).