Massachusetts's Right-to-Farm Summary

Advocates proposed the right-to-farm law in Massachusetts as a tool to prevent the loss of farmland and to protect farmers.1 Since enacting its RTF law in 1990, Massachusetts’s farm operations have grown by 12 percent while the state has lost 22 percent of its acreage in farms.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

Massachusetts’s RTF Law at a Glance

Massachusetts’s RTF law provides no explicit protection for farmland. Neither does the law tailor protection to certain farm sizes or forms, such as small or family farms. Rather, Massachusetts’s RTF law, like those present in all other states, centers on protecting agriculture and farming at large from nuisance suits over matters that impact neighboring property, like noise or pollution. The statute’s definition of farming and agriculture ranges from cultivation and tillage to dairying, aquaculture, livestock, horses, lumbering, and forestry operations. The act also explicitly defines a farmer “as one engaged in agriculture or farming as herein defined, or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations,” which also includes transportation to markets.3

Conditions and Activities

Massachusetts’s RTF law protects people and entities as well as their related and subsidiary forms from nuisance lawsuits, so long as they are (1) an “ordinary aspect of said farming operation or ancillary or related activity” and (2) in operation for more than one year. RTF protection from nuisance suits does not apply if the conduct is negligent (failing to take proper care) or inconsistent with generally accepted agricultural practices.4

The practical meaning of “generally accepted agricultural practices” has been subject to litigation. For example, a county board of health ordered a cranberry bog farm to abate an alleged nuisance consisting of sand piles that blew onto neighboring property. The farm subsequently claimed that the sand piles constituted an ordinary aspect of farming and was thus protected by the RTF law. The court disagreed, ruling that the RTF law did not apply and the county board of health could issue an abatement of the nuisance.5 In a 2013 case, homeowners claimed certain farm activities interfered with the enjoyment of their property. Grievous actions included deliberately dumping snow on the homeowners’ driveway, operating tractors in early mornings and late at night, and deliberately spraying dirt and manure onto the homeowners’ property during their outdoor activities. The court found that none of these activities constituted “generally acceptable agricultural practices,” and thus the RTF law did not protect the farm activities.6

Local Governance

Local governments through their boards of health retain some authority to determine that a farm or operation is a nuisance. Still, if odors or noises are part of “normal maintenance” or generally acceptable farming practices, these boards cannot declare the operations nuisances.7

When boards determine an operation is a nuisance, they can order the activity be abated within ten days. Although operations have the right to petition review of such decisions, if no petition is filed by the farm or upon final order of the court, the board may proceed in the manner it deems appropriate. However, petitions filed for review by farms suspend a board’s order until courts decide whether the RTF law applies.

Even before the enactment of its RTF law, Massachusetts’s zoning law barred ordinances or bylaws that “prohibit, unreasonably regulate, or require a special permit for the use of land” that is used primarily for farming and agriculture.8 Since 1985, the meaning of farming and agriculture has consequently been subject to conflict in court. In 1986, the town of Mansfield ordered a farm with sixty pigs on seventeen acres in an agricultural zone to desist. When the farmer refused, the inspector brought action seeking injunctive (an order to stop activities) and monetary relief. However, the court ruled that the town’s zoning attempt was void, and thus the agricultural operation was shielded from zoning laws. In a 2016 case, a mulching business owner claimed his agricultural operation was exempt from special permit requirements. Nonetheless, the court affirmed the zoning board’s decision that the mulching business was not an agricultural operation because the activity “does not involve growing or harvesting any forest products.”9 Likewise, Massachusetts courts have ruled that waste and recycling services do not qualify as farming or agriculture and thus remain subject to local zoning laws.10

Other pertinent lawsuits in Massachusetts include a realty trust that owned a grocery store where food, produce, and sundry items were sold. The trust attempted to use the RTF law’s agricultural exemption to defend its grocery store’s sign. The town government alleged that the sign violated its ordinance regulating how much a sign could flash or use neon light. The court ruled that the store did not qualify as using land primarily for commercial agriculture, and thus the agricultural exemption did not apply.11

Local governments can also choose to pass laws that provide additional protections to operations deemed agricultural.12 Governmental bodies in Massachusetts win more RTF cases than in any other state in the nation.

  • 1. Ralph Gordon, “Farmland Losses Are Deplored,” Springfield (Mass.) Union-News, June 16, 1988; Ralph Gordon, “Public, Private Recommendations Advised for Saving County Farms,” Springfield Union-News, June 27, 1988.
  • 2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1990 Survey, Massachusetts, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed January 6, 2021,; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Massachusetts,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022,
  • 3. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 111, § 1 (2021).
  • 4. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 243, § 6 (2021).
  • 5. Francisco Cranberries LLC v. Gibney, 1999 Mass. App. Div. 223
  • 6. Smith v. Wright, 2013 Mass. App. Div. 24.
  • 7. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 111, § 122 (2021).
  • 8. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 40A, § 3 (2021).
  • 9. Cotton Tree Services Inc. v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Westhampton, 89 Mass. App. Ct. 1136 (2016).
  • 10. A Plus Waste & Recycling Servs., LLC v. Stewart, 2018 Mass. App. Div. 132.
  • 11. Bruni v. Gambale, No. MISC 313482, 2008 WL 2955388 (Land Ct. Aug. 4, 2008).
  • 12. Rita Savard, “Right to Farm Passes Muster,” Lowell (Mass.) Sun, May 9, 2006; Bonnie Chandler, “Moving Ahead on ‘Right to Farm’ Bylaw,” Bolton (Mass.) Common, April 7, 2006.