Tennessee's Right-to-Farm Summary

In 1982, Tennessee legislators proposed a right-to-farm statute as a tool to prevent farmland from being “permanently lost.”1 But since that time, the number of farms has dropped by 23 percent and the acres of farmland by 13 percent.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

Tennessee’s RTF Law at a Glance

Tennessee’s RTF law provides no specific protection for family farms or means to stop suburban sprawl. Rather, Tennessee’s RTF law, like those present in the other forty-nine states, protects certain types of farm operations from nuisance suits when their activities impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution. Under the law, protected farms and farm operations include farmland, buildings, machinery, and activities that involve commercial agriculture production, including farm products and nursery stock such as forages, seeds, hemp, trees, vegetables, fruits, livestock, dairy, poultry, apiaries, and other products that involve the use of food, feed, fiber, or fur.3 Tennessee’s law protects farms that apply chemical fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as farming activities that involve noise, odors, dust, or fumes, including ground and aerial seeding and spraying.

What constitutes a farm operation under Tennessee’s RTF law has broadened over time. For example, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in 2013, after a series of appeals, that outdoor music concerts, even if used for marketing farm products, were not connected to production. Therefore, the RTF law did not shield the farm.4 The Tennessee General Assembly then passed an amendment in 2014 that extended RTF protections to the “marketing of farm products” as well as broadened the definition of agriculture to include “entertainment activities carried out in conjunction with, but secondary to, commercial production of farm products.”5

Conditions and Activities

Under Tennessee’s initial RTF law, two circumstances created a presumption that farm operations were not nuisances. Either the farm operation had to predate any change in land use or occupancy within one mile of the farm (meaning the farm had to be there first), or the farm operation had to use generally accepted agricultural and management practices created by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.6 After a series of amendments and later withdrawals of amendments, one key change resulted. Now, all farm operations are presumed not to be nuisances, unless the suing party can prove that they (1) do not conform to generally accepted agricultural practices, based on expert testimony; or (2) do not comply with applicable statutes or rules, including those of the Department of Agriculture and Department of Environment and Conservation.7

Since 1979, a related statute has provided additional protections against nuisance lawsuits for feedlots, dairy farms, and poultry production operations, as long as they comply with certain rules of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.8 These protections provide what is called an “absolute defense” against nuisance lawsuits, meaning the activities used by the operations are immune from liability if the operations can prove they are complying with the department’s rules.9 These extra protections apply only when the suing party comes after the farming operation, either in terms of ownership or use. In addition, normal noises, odors, and the operation’s appearance cannot be the basis for a nuisance lawsuit if the plaintiffs gained ownership of their land after the operation began.

Poultry farm operators tried to use this defense when sued by a neighboring couple for offensive odors, a cloud of gas, and increased rainwater runoff.10 When the couple first contracted to purchase their property in 1991, the poultry farm consisted of three small and unused chicken houses. Six months later, the poultry operation expanded to include five new, and much larger, chicken houses. When the neighboring couple sued for nuisance, the poultry operators claimed they met the statutory requirements because their ownership predated that of their neighbors. The trial court disagreed and declared that the neighbors had a sufficient ownership interest in the land before the five new poultry houses were built, meaning the special protections for feedlots, dairy farms, and poultry production operations did not apply.

Local Governance

While feedlots, dairy farms, and poultry production houses are required to follow local zoning requirements to receive protection, counties have no authority to enact them in agricultural areas.11 Specifically, county zoning powers “should not be used to inhibit normal agricultural activities,”12 which prevents counties from regulating structures and land used for agricultural purposes.13 A Tennessee appellate court interpreted this to include events, such as farm weddings, on land used for commercial production of farm products.14

However, counties do have other ways—besides zoning—to regulate agricultural operations. For example, the Tennessee Air Quality Act uses a nuisance-based standard, where it defines air pollution as the presence of air contaminants that could injure human, plant, or animal life or that unreasonably interfere with the enjoyment of life and property.15 A county air pollution control board can use methods of enforcement against agricultural operations that are allowed by the Tennessee Air Quality Act, such as imposing a fine, requiring actions to reduce the nuisance, or even requiring that the operation stop altogether.16

  • 1. See Shore v. Maple Lane Farms, LLC, 411 S.W.3d 405 (Tenn. 2013).
  • 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 42: Tennessee 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-Tennessee-CHAPTER_1_State_Data-121-Table-01.pdf; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Tennessee,” 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=TENNESSEE.
  • 3. Tenn. Code § 43-26-102 (2021).
  • 4. Shore, 411 S.W.3d 405.
  • 5. See 2014 Tenn. Pub. Acts 581 (S.B. 1614) (amending the definition of “farm operation” in Tenn. Code § 43-26-102 and the definition of “agriculture” in Tenn. Code § 43-1-113); see also “Greenback Woman Files New Maple Lane Farms Suit,” Maryville (Tenn.) Daily Times, March 31, 2015.
  • 6. Tenn. Code § 43-26-103 (1982).
  • 7. Tenn. Code § 43-26-103 (2021). For the relevant amendments, see 2002 Tenn. Pub. Acts 604 (S.B. 2135); 2016
  • 8. Tenn. Code § 44-18-102 (2021).
  • 9. Tenn. Code § 44-18-102 (2021).
  • 10. Cissom v. Miller, No. E1999-02767-COA-R3-CV, 2001 WL 456062 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 30, 2001).
  • 11. See Tenn. Att’y Gen. Op. No. 18-30 (July 6, 2018). See also Tenn. Code § 5-1-122 (2021).
  • 12. Tenn. Code § 5-1-122 (2021).
  • 13. Tenn. Att’y Gen. Op. No. 18-30 (July 6, 2018). See also Shore, 411 S.W.3d 405.
  • 14. Jefferson Cty. v. Wilmouth Family Properties, LLC, No. E2019-02283-COA-R3-CV, WL 321219 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2021).
  • 15. Tenn. Code § 68-201-102 (2021).
  • 16. Gen. Portland, Inc. v. Chattanooga-Hamilton Cty. Air Pollution Control Bd., 560 S.W.2d 910 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1976). The current Tennessee Air Quality Act can be found at Tenn. Code § 68-201-101 et seq. (for the powers of municipalities and counties under this act, see Tenn. Code § 68-201-115).