North Dakota’s Right-to-Farm Summary

Proponents advocated North Dakota’s right-to-farm law as a tool to protect family farmers and farmland from development.1 But since the law first passed in 1981, the number of farms in the state has dropped by 28 percent, with 2 percent fewer acres of farmland.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

North Dakota’s RTF Law at a Glance

North Dakota’s law provides no explicit protection for farmland or family farmers. Rather, North Dakota’s RTF law centers on protecting certain types of operations from nuisance suits when their activities impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution. The types of production that receive protection are expansive, including the commercial production of plants and animals, horticulture, floriculture, viticulture, forestry, dairy, livestock, poultry, bees, and any and all forms of farm products and farm production, as well as the disposal of those products by “marketing or other means.”3 North Dakota altered its original law to extend protections to corporations and limited liability companies that complied with the state’s Corporate Farming Law, which limits corporate ownership of farmland.4 Then in 2001, the legislature added language to protect corporations and LLCs regardless of their compliance with the Corporate Farming Law.5 Also in 2001, livestock auction markets gained RTF protections.

Changes in corporate protection have played a crucial role in different outcomes for farming operations. In a 1986 case, a farmer sued a neighboring corporate landowner, American Crystal Sugar Company, claiming that wastewater lagoons damaged the plaintiff’s farmland. While the trial court thought American Crystal’s activities qualified as an “agricultural operation,” its decision was overturned when the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled that the American Crystal Sugar Company was not protected because it did not meet the requirements of the state’s Corporate Farming Law.6 Since that time, corporations have gained access to RTF protections in North Dakota. In 2005, the state supreme court ruled that Minto Grain, a limited liability corporation, warranted RTF protections when a neighboring family that owned a trucking business claimed nuisances of noise, dust, and fumes.7 The state supreme court did not believe the legislature originally intended RTF protections for the “preparation and marketing [of agricultural] products by large national corporations”8 but nonetheless extended protections to Minto Grain, in accordance with recent amendments.

In 2012, North Dakota voters adopted a constitutional amendment sponsored by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, stating, “The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state. No law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production, and ranching practices.”9 Missouri is the only other state in the nation with a similar constitutional amendment.

Conditions and Activities

A series of conditions clarify the context in which RTF protections apply. If operations meet such conditions, like operating for a year and not being a nuisance at the time it begins, those operations cannot be deemed a nuisance under state or local laws.10 If conditions around the facility change, the protections for the operation still hold.

Certain activities, though, are not protected by the RTF law. For example, the statute does not protect operations that fail to use proper care (that is, operate negligently) or that pollute any stream water or cause any overflow onto the lands of another.11 North Dakota’s law allows a plaintiff to recover damages when an agriculture operation pollutes stream water but does not stipulate whether this includes groundwater. Air pollution also is not mentioned.

Local Governance

North Dakota’s RTF law voids any municipal ordinance that declares an operation a nuisance or requires it to stop (when meeting the aforementioned criteria).12 However, local governments can enforce ordinances when agricultural operations are operating improperly or negligently or are within the corporate limits of a city.13

  • 1. See Associated Press, “North Dakota’s Nuisance Law Could Be Challenged,” Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, February 24, 1999; Curt Woodward, “Wrangling in Offensive Odor—State Would Step In for Counties That Don’t Have Feedlot Setbacks,” Grand Forks Herald, March 18, 2005.
  • 2. U.S. Department of Commerce, “Table 1. Farms, Land in Farms, and Land Use: 1982 and Earlier Census Years,” in 1982 Census of Agriculture, Volume 1: Geographic Area Series, Part 34: North Dakota State and County Data, Chapter 1: State Data (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1984),; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: North Dakota,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022,
  • 3. N.D. Cent. Code § 42-04-01 (2021).
  • 4. 1999 N.D. Laws 50 (H.B. 1045) (amending, in relevant part, N.D. Cent. Code § 42-04-01).
  • 5. 2001 N.D. Laws 55 (H.B. 1049) (amending, in relevant part, N.D. Cent. Code § 42-04-01).
  • 6. Knoff v. Am. Crystal Sugar Co., 380 N.W.2d 313 (N.D. 1986).
  • 7. Tibert v. Slominski, 692 N.W.2d 133 (N.D. 2005).
  • 8. Tibert, 692 N.W.2d at 137, (citing to Knoff, 380 N.W.2d at 316
  • 9. N.D. Const. art. XI, § 29.
  • 10. N.D. Cent. Code § 42-04-02 (2021).
  • 11. N.D. Cent. Code § 42-04-03 (2021).
  • 12. N.D. Cent. Code § 42-04-04 (2021).
  • 13. N.D. Cent. Code § 42-04-04 (2021).