Local officials hope a new amendment to the state constitution that was signed into law Thursday will protect farmers from costly litigation and help strengthen the region’s stressed agriculture industry.
Gov. Susana Martinez signed the Right to Farm Nuisance Changes, House Bill 51, with a wording change that is expected to cut down on unfair nuisance lawsuits often filed by out-of-state organizations.
“Anything will help farming and ranching in an industry that basically is very unique,” said state Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Dist. 27, minority floor leader. “The last thing we need is more liability on farming and ranching. They’re so liable now for so many things.”
It will also help the southeast dairy industry further recover from the economic downturn it has experienced in the past four years, local officials said.
Chaves County remains the state’s dairy capital with some 50 dairies, followed by Curry and Roosevelt counties.
The state’s dairy industry has been hit by a series of costly lawsuits that operators continue to battle, said Beverly Idsinga, executive director of Dairy Producers of New Mexico.
“Basically, what happened was some out-of-state attorneys came in to sue some of our dairies,” Idsinga said. “They’ve done this in other states. Part of the reason they’re doing that is because we had a very weak Right to Farm act.”
DPNM worked with legislators to get the change through this year’s session, Idsinga said.
“This will give (dairies) that level of protection for lawsuits,” Idsinga said. “Hopefully, it will get us in there to hang on a little bit longer.”
The change also makes a difference for businesses that want to locate to New Mexico. Even if farmers win the lawsuits, they still pay legal costs and increases in insurance as a result, Ingle said.
“We’ve got to have a fair system,” Ingle said. “We have to have a decent atmosphere for business. We have a very liberal interpretation for who is liable for what in this state. We always have.”
New Mexico supported 180 dairies before a perfect storm hit four years ago.
The state lost 21 percent of its dairies with a combination of drought, extremely high feed prices and low milk prices, said Robert Hagevoort, New Mexico State University extension dairy specialist in Clovis.
Chaves County had 60 dairies before the economic downturn.
“The loss of 21 percent of your dairies, it tells you the magnitude of your problem, and just how bad things were,” Hagevoort said.
Before the Right to Farm law’s language was changed Thursday, farmers and ranchers could be sued for nuisance charges for “improperly” operating. The term was ambiguous and had no legal interpretation.
The new changes protect farmers and ranchers from encroaching urban sprawl and nuisance lawsuits by stipulating that agricultural operations that have been in existence at least one year shall not be considered a nuisance, unless operated negligently or illegally.
Agriculture in New Mexico was a $4.1 billion industry in 2012, according to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.