Oklahoma’s Right-to-Farm Summary

Controversy has surrounded the right-to-farm law in Oklahoma since major amendments in the early 1990s.1 Some argue that the law protects family farms, while others counter that it paves the way for corporate agriculture.2 Since the law first passed in 1980, the number of farms in the state has increased by 7 percent, with about the same amount of land in farms.3 So what does the state’s RTF statute do in practice?

Oklahoma’s RTF Law at a Glance

Oklahoma’s RTF law, first passed in 1980, does not explicitly protect family farms or farmland from development. Rather, Oklahoma’s RTF law, like those present in the other forty-nine states, centers on protecting certain agricultural activities on farmland and ranchland from nuisance suits when they impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution.4 In 2000, an amendment added the production of livestock or agricultural commodities and forestry activities to the definition of “farmland,” including associated buildings and structures.5 Activities protected from nuisance suits range from growing horticultural and agricultural crops to new technology, pens, barns, fences, and other so-called improvements designed for the sheltering, restriction, or feeding of animal or aquatic life, for storage of produce or feed, or for storage or maintenance of implements.6

Conditions and Activities

Initially, operations had to predate neighboring nonagricultural activities to claim protection from nuisance.7 In 2009, however, the RTF law was amended to substantially expand protections for operations, even if they were not there first.8 A facility now has to be in operation only for two years to claim RTF protection.9 Amendments in 2017 added further protections, stipulating that the two-year clock does not restart even if the physical facilities of the farm or ranch subsequently change; a new technology is adopted; the operation ceases farming or production (for up to three years); or the farm or ranch participates in a government-sponsored agricultural program.10

Operations that use “good agricultural practices” are protected, as long as they comply with federal, state, and local laws.11 Some state and federal environmental rules and regulations exempt agricultural operations from standards required of other industries.12 Air pollution, like odor, is not regulated in Oklahoma.13 The RTF statute does not define the meaning of good agricultural practices, leaving it often to court rulings. In a 2003 case, co-defendant Cargill, Inc., argued that its growers applied poultry litter “consistent with good agricultural practices” because they did not have a “substantial adverse affect [sic] on the public health and safety.”14 Oklahoma’s statute stipulates that agricultural activities are protected, so long as they do not substantially impact public health or safety.15 The court nonetheless ruled that Cargill could not use the RTF defense based on another criterion of the law. Since the poultry defendant’s application of poultry litter did not predate the use of the lakes as a municipal water supply, it could not use the RTF defense of its practices.16 The case was later settled out of court. Since the law changed to require only two years in operation to be considered “prior,” the court’s justification for its ruling in this case may no longer hold.

Local Governance

Oklahoma’s RTF law does not specifically curtail government authority. However, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry does not allow municipalities, counties, or other political subdivisions to enact or enforce ordinances or regulations more restrictive than its own, as pertains to the care and handling of livestock.17 Still, local government can enact or enforce ordinances and regulations that pertain to land use or human health and safety.18 In counties with populations in excess of 550,000 people, local governments may declare what shall constitute a nuisance and provide for the prevention, removal, and abatement of nuisances for those properties acquired by the county through resale and for any property located within an unincorporated area of the county.19

Other Important Aspects

Defendants recover costs and fees when nuisance suits are deemed frivolous.20 This and similar language may have a chilling effect on the filing of nuisance suits in favor of industrial operators.21In 2019, a controversial amendment was passed along party lines, limiting the awards available to successful plaintiffs.22 Noneconomic damages cannot exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever amount is greater.23

The RTF law in Oklahoma also works in dialogue with the Oklahoma Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations Act and the Oklahoma Registered Poultry Feeding Operations Act.24 In 2007, a court used the Oklahoma Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations Act to affirm a lower court’s ruling that feedlot operators had to abate their nuisance because the neighbors had lived there twelve years prior to when the cattle operation began.25

  • 1. David Zizzo, “Downwind of Corporate Push Law Change Opens Gate to Pig Plantations,” Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), May 9, 1993.
  • 2. “Group to Protest Right-to-Farm Act Monday at Capitol,” Tulsa World, April 1, 1995.
  • 3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Quick Stats Tool: June 1980 Survey, Oklahoma, distributed by National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 4, 2020, https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/results/CB0A30DA-3321-38BF-B0F7-5F295320F814; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Oklahoma,” 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=OKLAHOMA.
  • 4. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (2021).
  • 5. 2000 Okla. Sess. Laws 300 (H.B. 2306) (amending, in relevant part, Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1).
  • 6. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (2021).
  • 7. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (1980).
  • 8. 2009 Okla. Sess. Laws 147 (H.B. 1482) (amending, in relevant part, Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1).
  • 9. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (2021).
  • 10. 2017 Okla. Sess. Laws 276 (H.B. 1388) (amending, in relevant part, Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1).
  • 11. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (2021).
  • 12. Danielle Diamond, Loka Ashwood, Allen Franco, Aimee Imlay, Lindsay Kuehn, and Crystal Boutwell, “Farm Fiction: Agricultural Exceptionalism, Environmental Injustice and U.S. Right-to-Farm Law,” Environmental Law Reporter 52 (Sept. 2022): 10727-10748
  • 13. David Zizzo, “Hold Your Nose, but Not Your Breath: No Easy Answers for Smelly Hog Farms’ Neighbors,” Daily Oklahoman, January 12, 1998.
  • 14. City of Tulsa v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 258 F. Supp. 2d 1263 (N.D. Okla. 2003).
  • 15. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (2021).
  • 16. Tyson Foods, Inc., 258 F. Supp. 2d 1263.
  • 17. Okla. Stat. tit. 2, § 2-4c (2021).
  • 18. Okla. Stat. tit. 2, § 2-4c (2021).
  • 19. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 20 (2021).
  • 20. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (2021).
  • 21. 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. For more on the chilling effect of such statutes, see the section “Geopolitical Extraction” in the introduction.
  • 22. 019 Okla. Sess. Laws 21 (H.B. 2373) (amending, in relevant part, Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1). See also Jack Money, “Committee Sends Ag Nuisance Bill to Senate,” The Oklahoman, March 20, 2019.
  • 23. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (2021).
  • 24. Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1.1 (2021). The Oklahoma Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations Act can be found at Okla. Stat. tit. 2, §§ 20-40 through 20-64; the Oklahoma Registered Poultry Feeding Operations Act can be found at Okla. Stat. tit. 2, §§ 10-9 through 10-9.12.
  • 25. Woodlake Estates, Inc. v. Sternberger, 173 P.3d 98 (Okla. Civ. App. 2007).