Protecting Life Down On Colorado's Farms

Counties are passing laws to prevent former city folk from suing farmers for noise, smells.

Before dawn on Saturdays, long before city-dwellers stir from their sleep, farmers set up their bounty in open-air markets around the United States. It is a weekend ritual that delights urban residents, who fill their straw baskets with succulent tomatoes, onions, and sweet corn.

But urbanites' appreciation for farm-fresh goods sometimes diminishes when they transplant themselves to the country. Suddenly, the sounds and smells necessary to produce a ripe melon or quart of milk become an unwelcome reality.

As metropolitan areas nationwide spill into traditional farmland, tensions are rising between those who make their living from the land and newcomers with dreams of peace and pastoral views. From California's fertile San Joaquin Valley to the temperate Carolinas, farmers are increasingly the target of "nuisance" lawsuits from new neighbors. To protect them, local governments are taking the unusual step of enacting tough right-to-farm laws.

In Colorado, where the population has increased by one-fifth since 1990, Larimer County Sept. 2 became the 10th county to establish a Right to Farm and Ranch policy.

"We're saying that agriculture was there first, it's important, and we support it," says county commissioner John Clarke. "If it comes down to a conflict, we're going to take the side of agriculture."

The new policy stipulates that anything that qualifies as part of normal agricultural activity - from noise and dust to slow-moving farm equipment - shall not be considered a nuisance.

"We're hoping this will bring on a better education process," says Bob Hamblen, a cooperative extension agent at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

"People from the city want some elbow room. They see a beautiful site, and they say, 'Man, I want to live there!' " adds Mr. Hamblen, who worked to pass the legislation. "But they don't realize what they're getting into."

Traditionally, rural areas were inhabited almost exclusively by agricultural producers, so raising awareness about the hazards of country life simply wasn't an issue. Indeed, homesteaders often lived under the same roof as their livestock so they wouldn't have to brave the winter elements to tend them. The odor from cattle feedlots has long been jokingly referred to as "the smell of money."

BUT for those whose heritage is rooted in tidy suburban subdivisions, the facts of rural life can come as a rude awakening.

"If you move next to a cattle operation, there is going to be some odor. When a farmer is putting up hay, he may be running his machinery in the middle of the night. And it's not unusual for a farmer to feed his livestock at 5 a.m.," says Deni LaRue, spokeswoman for Larimer County, situated about an hour north of Denver. "This may be disruptive to your sleep, but that's how farms work."

Right-to-farm laws got their start in the East decades ago. But in the wide-open West, where rampant growth is a more-recent phenomenon and suspicion of government intrusion runs deep, these policies are just coming into their own.

Here in Colorado, where the growth rate is twice the national average and development claims 10 acres of land every hour, new homes are a lucrative "crop" on land that was once tilled for corn or wheat.

Mr. Clarke describes the current trend as "a gentrification of the countryside: In the past, people in the country made their living from the land. Now, people live in the country, but make their living from the cities."

Still, farming is holding its own as a leading economic contributor in Colorado. As such, other counties are poised to follow in Larimer's footsteps. While the state passed a broad right-to-farm law in 1981, local policies go a step further, aiming to head off conflicts before they develop.

For example, local policies encourage homebuilders, realtors, and title companies to warn buyers about the negatives of country life. And the Larimer County policy establishes a mediation process to help stave off lawsuits that farmers can ill-afford to defend themselves against.

Considering that the economic pressures of farming already drive out roughly 10 percent of Colorado's ranchers and farmers each year, Hamblen says, "if a farmer has to defend himself in court, that can put him out of business."

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