Missouri's Right-to-Farm Summary

Ample controversy has surrounded a series of right-to-farm amendments in Missouri, including a constitutional one in 2014. Proponents advocated the law to keep agriculture thriving, while opponents countered that it drives out family farms.1 Since RTF first became law in 1982, the number of Missouri farms has dropped by 15 percent, with 6 percent fewer acres of farmland.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

Missouri’s RTF Law at a Glance

Missouri’s RTF law, like those present in the other forty-nine states, centers on protecting certain types of facilities from nuisance suits when they impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution. Missouri’s RTF law protects any commercial facility used in the production or processing of crops, livestock, swine, poultry, livestock products, swine products, or poultry products.3

Missouri codified the RTF law in the state constitution (one of only two states to do so) after a controversial amendment passed by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2014.The amendment guarantees “the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices.”4 However, this is subject to the definition of “farming and ranching practices.” For example, when a defendant tried to use the constitutional amendment to defend against charges of animal cruelty, the court would not allow it. The jury consequently found that the defendant had committed a purposefully abusive act and was not engaging in a legitimate farming practice.5 Further, a court rules that the Christian County Health Department in 2016 could halt the sale and distribution of raw milk, suspending the farmer’s constitutional claim of RTF defense.6

Conditions and Activities

Missouri’s original law protected commercial facilities once they were in operation for a year. In 1990, legislators repealed the 1982 law and replaced it with a version that dramatically expanded protections for commercial facilities. From that point forward, an operation was protected from nuisance lawsuits if (1) the area around it changed after it began operating; (2) the operation expanded in acres or animal units, as long as it did not violate existing laws; and (3) that operation temporarily halted or downsized its production.7

If a court determines that the operation constituted a nuisance at the time it began or that it was negligent (that is, operating improperly), RTF protections do not apply. They also do not apply if the operation’s expansion has a substantially adverse effect on the environment or public health and safety or otherwise increases environmental pressures on surrounding neighbors due to increased pollution.8 The law also does not protect animal operations that fail to use waste handling standards set by the University of Missouri’s Agriculture Extension Service.9

Local Governance

Missouri’s right-to-farm law does not specifically address how local governments can regulate agricultural operations. Rather, a suite of other laws contextualize the power of the RTF law. Prior to 2019, local governments had some latitude to pass their own ordinances. For example, the Missouri Supreme Court held in 1997 that counties could pursue equitable relief under certain circumstances to abate public nuisances, along with cities, towns, and villages.10 However, townships had no such authority. In 1999, the Linn County government successfully defended its ordinance through a statute that authorizes local governments to enact legislation “[tending] to enhance the public health and prevent the entrance of infectious, contagious, communicable or dangerous diseases into such a county.”11 The court agreed that the standards the county placed on hog facilities enhanced public health and prevented disease.12 Other counties likewise enacted health ordinances to curtail concentrated animal feeding operations.

However, as of 2019, a recent amendment limits the ability of counties and local health boards to enact ordinances that regulate agricultural operations.13 Other restrictions separately limit townships and counties from regulating farm buildings or farm structures.14

Attorney Fees and Limits on Damages

In 2009, legislators passed amendments that placed limits on the recovery of damages for those who sue agricultural operations. The 2009 amendment followed a case, initially filed in 2002, where the jury awarded over $11 million to residents and farmers living near a Premium Standard Farms hog operation, later absorbed by WH Group’s Smithfield Foods Inc. The verdict was issued in 2008 and was subsequently upheld on appeal in 2011. It was the largest monetary award ever issued against a hog farm in an odor nuisance case, according to a press release issued by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.15

The 2009 amendment limited possible monetary compensation for permanent nuisances (ones that cannot be stopped through altering practices) to the reduction in property value, capped at the overall assessed value. Those suing could no longer claim awards based on use and enjoyment.16 For example, neighbors of an industrial hog operation sued Cargill Pork LLC and its host for nuisance in 2015, but the court ruled that statute 537.296 prohibits noneconomic damages such as the loss of use (like future earnings from raising cattle or collecting rent) and enjoyment of property (like sitting on the back porch).17 In the case of temporary nuisances (ones that can be stopped through altering practices), damages are limited to current fair rent value. Once damages are awarded, the ruling becomes codified on the property deed. If the property is sold in the future and someone later wants to bring a nuisance suit against the same operator, that individual’s damages are limited to those allowed for permanent nuisances.

These limitations on awards have been challenged as unconstitutional because they violate private property rights. However, a court determined that promoting agricultural activity is to the public’s benefit. The court thus ruled that this authorizes the taking of private property by limiting damages.18

Missouri’s RTF law also allows for qualified operations to recover the expenses and attorney fees they incur while defending against frivolous nuisance lawsuits.19

  • 1. Tim Hoover, “Missouri Bill Divides Rural Communities,” Kansas City (Mo.) Star, March 8, 2007; Karen Dalton, “Bill to Limit Factory Farms’ Liability Faces Possible Veto,” Kansas City Star, May 2, 2011.
  • 2. U.S. Department of Commerce, “Table 4. Farms, Land in Farms, and Land Use, by Size of Farm: 1982 and 1978,” in 1982 Census of Agriculture, Volume 1: Geographic Area Series, Part 25: Missouri State and County Data, Chapter 1: State Data (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1984), https://agcensus.library.cornell.edu/wp-content/uploads/1982-Missouri-CHAPTER_1_State_Data-121-Table-04.pdf; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Missouri,” 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=MISSOURI.
  • 3. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.295(2) (2021).
  • 4. Mo. Const. art. 1, § 35 (2021).
  • 5. State v. Hammond, 569 S.W.3d 21 (Mo. Ct. App. 2018).
  • 6. Vimont v. Christian Cty. Health Dep't,502 S.W.3d 718, 719–20 (Mo. Ct. App. 2016) (“constitutional farming rights, whatever they may be, are subject to local-government powers duly authorized and conferred by article VI of Missouri’s constitution … As relevant here, article VI directs that county commissions ‘shall manage all county business prescribed by law’ (§ 7) and for county powers to be defined by ‘general laws’ (§ 8)”).
  • 7. 1990 Mo. Laws (S.B. 686) (enacting what is now Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.295).
  • 8. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.295 (2021).
  • 9. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.295 (2021).
  • 10. Premium Standard Farms v. Lincoln Twp., 946 S.W.2d 234, 240 (Mo. 1997) (stating that “counties have been granted the power to pursue equitable relief under certain circumstances to abate a public nuisance, sections 67.410, 263.262, [Mo. Rev. Stat.] 1994, as have cities, towns and villages, sections 71.285, 77.530, 77.560, 79.370, 79.380, 79.383, 80.090, [Mo. Rev. Stat.] 1994”).
  • 11. Borron v. Farrenkopf, 5 S.W.3d 618, 621 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999).
  • 12. Borron, 5 S.W.3d at 621–22 (noting that “the purpose of the ordinance was to regulate for health concerns rather than for a uniform development of real estate”).
  • 13. See 2019 Mo. Laws (S.B. 391) (amending Mo. Rev. Stat. § 192.300, subd. 1(2), to state that counties shall not “[2] impose standards or requirements on an agricultural operation and its appurtenances, as such term is defined in section 537.295, that are inconsistent with or more stringent than any provision of this chapter or chapters 260, 640, 643, and 644, or any rule or regulation promulgated under such chapters”).
  • 14. See, e.g., Mo. Rev. Stat. § 65.677 (2021). See also Premium Standard Farms, 946 S.W.2d 234.
  • 15. See the Speer Law Firm, “Missouri Jury Awards Residents Eleven Million in Damages from Living under Cloud of Stench Caused by Industrial Hog Farms,” PR Newswire, March 5, 2010. See also Owens v. ContiGroup Companies, Inc., 344 S.W.3d 717 (Mo. Ct. App. 2011); 2009 Mo. Laws (H.B. 481) (adding what is now Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.296(7), which allows parties to request that the court or jury visit the location of an alleged private nuisance if the amount at issue in the case exceeds $1 million).
  • 16. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.296(2)(1) (2021).
  • 17. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.296 (2021); Labrayere v. Bohr Farms, LLC, 458 S.W.3d 319 (Mo. 2015).
  • 18. Labrayere, 458 S.W.3d 319.
  • 19. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.295(5) (2021).