Contentious farm bill would shield agriculture operations from 'frivolous' lawsuits

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

A bill environmental groups say will give Florida farmers a pass on nuisance pollution is making its way through the House of Representatives and is expected by many to be approved this week. 

Senate Bill 88, also called the Farming Operations bill, passed through the Senate recently, and the House companion, 1601 and of the same name, passed on a first read Sunday night. 

It will be discussed again Wednesday and possible approved Thursday. 

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Environmental groups and critics of the bill say it will give farmer's a pass on controversial practices like burning sugar cane while also possibly setting precedent for further agriculture protections. 

"It sounds like it’s moving full speed ahead," said Eve Samples, with Friends of the Everglades. "Barring any last minute action by the house speaker, I don’t think it will be derailed and we remain very concerned." 

The bill aims to "protect farmers and ranchers from nuisance lawsuits filed by individuals who move into a rural area where normal farming operations exist and then use legal actions to stop or interfere with ongoing farming operations," the latest copy reads.

"As our state continues to experience unprecedented growth and as residential development continues to encroach upon our rural areas, there is a possibility for increased complaints regarding farming practices approved by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, such as harvesting, transporting crops, and conducting controlled burning," it continues. 

Sugarcane fields are worked on the south side of Lake Okeechobee in September of this year.

Basically, farmers don't want people filing lawsuits over things that are considered nuisance pollution: loud tractors, falling ash, foul smells or spraying.

Samples said the bill could end up having larger impacts, that it would protect corporations that are potentially harming the public. 

"There is language in the bill that gave us pause about water quality," Samples said. 

Agriculture is one of the top industries in the state but is largely responsible for nutrient pollution in waterways that have become more problematic in various parts of Florida in recent years.  

But this bill, effective July 1, focuses more on other types of pollution: noise, light and odor.

"The Legislature further finds that agricultural activities conducted on farm land in urbanizing areas are potentially subject to lawsuits based on the theory of nuisance and that these suits encourage and even force the premature removal of the farm land from agricultural use," the latest version of the bill reads. 

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Farming interests say the bill is more about protecting the industry from unnecessary lawsuits, that farmers should be protected from the courts if they're abiding by the rules and regulations. 

Adam Basford, director of Legislative affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, said the bill won't change regulations, and that this bill doesn't apply to existing lawsuits. 

"The premise is pretty simple to me," Basford said. "This bill says that farmers who have permits and follow best management practices, they are not open to frivolous lawsuits." 

Basford said the industry is already highly regulated and that any operations working outside those regulations should be held responsible. 

Others, he said, shouldn't have to fear they'll be part of a lawsuit involving people who's health has been compromised from a common activity like burning sugar cane. 

"Prescribed burning is highly regulated, and it takes into account public health," Basford said. "Farmers need predictability. For them to have certainty, whether it for pesticide application or burning, if I go by those rules and regulations, I won’t be sued by someone who doesn’t like the smell of a farm." 

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He said the bill focuses on protecting common practices that are, at times, being threatened by urbanization and growth. 

"Sometimes burning gets questions or sometimes you have a tractor coming behind and it has a sprayer and someone may question if that has been permitted,"  Basford said. "If the farmer knows they are compliant with the label of that product, if you’re doing it the right way, you’re not worried about a lawsuit; and if you’re not operating by those regulations, you should be worried." 

Samples said the bill may have broader implications, that this is a way of mandating protection to an industry that has historically been associated with pollution. 

"This might not just be a sugar cane burning issue," Samples said. "That’s a big impact but this could have impacts on water quality issues where they’re not governed by court orders. This goes much father, and the particle emission is really a concern. It's raising the burden of proof, and it seems to be shielding farming operations. Let’s let the courts decide on these issues." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.