OGDEN — Bennett Gibson is the son of a sixth-generation dairy farmer who would love the chance to pass the 150-year legacy onto his own children someday.
As the farmland around the Green Acres Dairy operation increasingly grows houses instead of food, Gibson, 21, worries the long history of farming will be reduced to a memory, instead of career path for his children.
"The state of Utah is growing and it is growing rapidly," he said. "As a farmer and rancher it is scary, but it is also exciting."
Bennett and another dairy farmer recently testified on behalf of SB93, sponsored by Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, urging passage of the legislative measure that seeks to help protect Utah's farmers and ranchers from "frivolous" nuisance lawsuits that could drive them out of business.
"This is something as a young farmer I am really concerned about it," said Midway dairy farmer Russ Kohler. "I live in an area where we are getting housed in all over the place."
Kohler said there is running joke between him and city workers who say they can tell when the operation begins moving manure onto the fields because that is when the telephone complaints start rolling in.
"As a fourth-generation farmer I want to be able to carry on my heritage and traditions," he told members of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Committee in a recent hearing.
"For me it would just be a travesty to have neighbors who don't understand what we do and basically be able to put me out of business," Kohler said.
Sandall said that increasingly, nuisance lawsuits are targeting ranchers and farmers across the country and often are lodged by critics of the agriculture industry who live nowhere near the operation.
"There have been groups in other states who have brought lawsuits against operations when they do not even have standing," he said. "They are not neighbors and they don't own property nearby."
Sandall said his bill establishes certain criteria for bringing a complaint but also preserves the rights of nearby landowners who assert they are adversely affected by an agricultural operation.
Some of the defenses for agriculture in a nuisance complaint, according to Sandall's bill, include:
• The plaintiff does not own property affected by the agricultural operations or the property is outside a half-mile buffer zone;
• The complaint is not brought within a year of the operation's establishment;
• The complaint is brought absent a significant change in operations or beyond a year after that change occurs.
The legislative measure would not restrict cities and counties from making zoning changes, but they could not come in retroactively and target an operation engaged in "sound agricultural practices," according to the bill.
Sandall has been working with the Utah League of Cities and Towns on any concerns it may have regarding the bill's potential impacts on local autonomy.
Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy with the Utah Farm Bureau, said over the last 30 years, lawmakers have increasingly strengthened the laws on the books to protect farming and ranching.
Utah is the ninth-most urbanized state in the nation, with the bulk of that growth occurring along the Wasatch Front.
That growth has set the stage for increasing conflicts with agriculture, even as residents are placing a higher importance on fresh, locally produced food, Brown said, and the popularity of local farmers markets is booming.
"As this urban encroachment occurs adjacent to farms, we have residents who don't understand the realities of food production. Obviously I am talking about the flies, the smells, the mud or the manure on the road," Brown said.
Sandall said the proposal does not strip the ability of neighbors to bring a nuisance complaint against a problematic agricultural operation.
"We want to protect our citizen who is adjacent to an agriculture operation and give them the freedom and latitude for that interface to really happen," he said.
The clash between rural and urban interests, however, is a threat for many areas in Utah where people want to continue to produce food and fiber.
"Farmers and ranchers are not expanding into the urban area, it is the other way around," Sandall said. "It is a lot of pressure and for a lot of these young farmers, it may be the deciding factor on whether they continue to farm in this urban environment or if they just throw up their hands and say pave it."
The bill advanced from the legislative committee and is awaiting action in the Senate.
In another agriculture-related measure, Rep. Casey Snider wants the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to spend $75,000 on a comprehensive inventory of Utah's private agricultural lands, their worth and the value of the commodities they produce.23 comments on this story
The bill, HB91, would require the study to be completed by May 31, 2020, and is aimed at giving the state an idea of the most prized agricultural land that needs to be protected.
Snider, R-Paradise, said whether it is cherry orchards on the south side of Utah Lake or row crops in Box Elder and Weber counties, the state needs better information on its agricultural industry.
"This grew out of conversation regarding how we best maintain, promote and protect our agricultural lands and our agricultural community," he said.
That bill advanced with a committee vote and awaits action in the House.