Justia Agriculture Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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Quaker Valley Farms, LLC (Quaker Valley) owned approximately 120 acres of deed-restricted farmland in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. As part of New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program, the State purchased an easement on the property that prohibited any activity on the property that was detrimental to soil conservation, but permitted the construction of new buildings for agricultural purposes. Quaker Valley excavated and leveled twenty acres of the farm previously used for the production of crops, to erect hoop houses (temporary greenhouses) in which it would grow flowers. In the process, Quaker Valley destroyed the land’s prime quality soil. At issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether Quaker Valley’s excavation activities violated its deed of easement and the Agriculture Retention and Development Act (ARDA). The Supreme Court determined Quaker Valley had the right to erect hoop houses, but did not have the authority to permanently damage a wide swath of premier quality soil in doing so. Accordingly, the judgment of the Appellate Division, which overturned the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the State Agriculture Development Committee, was reversed. “Those who own deed-restricted farmland must have well delineated guidelines that will permit them to make informed decisions about the permissible limits of their activities.” View "New Jersey v. Quaker Valley Farms, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Department of Pesticide Regulation, acting under the Food & Agriculture Code, approved amended labels for two registered pesticides: Dinotefuran 20SG and Venom Insecticide, which allowed both pesticides to be used on additional crops and allowed Venom to be used in increased quantities. Both pesticides contain the active ingredient dinotefuran, which is in a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.The Department concluded uses of both pesticides in accord with the label amendments would cause no significant effect on honeybees or the environment. An environmental group challenged the approvals, alleging violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by approving the label amendments without sufficient environmental review. The court of appeal reversed the approvals. The Department’s pesticide registration program is exempt only from CEQA chapters 3 and 4 and from Public Resources Code section 21167; its regulatory program remains subject to CEQA's broad policy goals and substantive requirements. The Department’s environmental review was deficient. It failed to address any feasible alternative to registering the proposed new uses for the pesticides; failed to assess baseline conditions with respect to actual use of neonicotinoids in California; and did not show that the Department considered whether the impact to honey bees associated with registering new uses for both insecticides would be cumulatively considerable. View "Pesticide Action Network v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation" on Justia Law

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Until 2000, Sonoma County grape growers could plant or replant a vineyard “as a matter of right” without governmental approval. A 2000 ordinance, governing “grading, drainage improvement, and vineyard and orchard site development within the unincorporated area of the county” requires growers, other than hobbyists, to obtain an erosion-control permit from the Agricultural Commissioner before establishing or replanting a vineyard. An applicant must submit plans demonstrating compliance with certain directives and must accept certain ongoing agricultural practices. The Commissioner issued the Ohlsons a permit to establish a vineyard on land they own that was being used for grazing, finding that issuing the permit was a ministerial act, exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, Public Resources Code 21000 (CEQA). The trial court agreed. The court of appeal affirmed. Although the ordinance may allow the Commissioner to exercise discretion when issuing erosion-control permits in some circumstances, the objectors did not show that the Commissioner improperly determined that issuing the Ohlsons’ permit was ministerial. Most of the ordinance’s provisions that potentially confer discretion did not apply to their project, and the objectors failed to show that the few that might apply conferred the ability to mitigate potential environmental impacts to any meaningful degree. View "Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma" on Justia Law

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The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9603, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA), 42 U.S.C. 11004, require parties to notify authorities when large quantities of hazardous materials are released into the environment. In 2008, the EPA issued a final rule that generally exempts farms from CERCLA and EPCRA reporting requirements for air released from animal waste. The EPA reasoned that the reports were unnecessary because, in most cases, federal response was impractical and unlikely. The court concluded that petitioners have informational standing and proceeded to the merits. The court granted the petition for review and vacated the Final Rule, concluding that the EPA's action cannot be justified either as a reasonable interpretation of any statutory ambiguity or implementation of a de minimis exception. The Pork Producers' challenge was moot and the court dismissed their petition. View "Waterkeeper Alliance v. EPA" on Justia Law

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Appellees were 34 individuals who owned or resided on properties adjacent to a 220-acre farm in York County, owned since 1986 by appellant George Phillips. Phillips operated his own farm, Hilltop Farms, and leased part of the land to appellant Steve Troyer, who raised various crops. Appellants Synagro Central, LLC and Synagro Mid-Atlantic are corporate entities engaged in the business of recycling biosolids for public agencies for land application; they contracted with municipalities to recycle and transport biosolids, which were then used as fertilizer. Over approximately 54 days between March 2006 and April 2009, approximately 11,635 wet tons of biosolids were applied to 14 fields at the farm. The biosolids were spread over the fields’ surface and not immediately tilled or plowed into the soil. Appellees contended that as soon as the biosolids were applied, extremely offensive odors emanated. In July 2008, appellees filed two similar three-count complaints, which were consolidated; they also filed an amended complaint in 2010. In Count I, appellees alleged appellants’ biosolids activities created a private nuisance. Count II alleged negligence by appellants in their duty to properly handle and dispose of the biosolids. Count III alleged appellants’ biosolids activities constituted a trespass on appellees’ land. Appellees sought injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs. In October 2009, after receiving the third notice of violation from the PaDEP, Synagro suspended the use of biosolids at Hilltop Farms, rendering appellees’ request for injunctive relief moot. The last application of biosolids at the farm occurred in April 2009. Appellants moved for summary judgment on the basis that appellees’ nuisance claims were barred by the one-year statute of repose in section 954(a) of the Right To Farm Act (RTFA). The issue this appeal presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether a trial court or a jury should have determined the applicability of section 954(a), and whether the trial court properly concluded the land application of biosolids as fertilizer is a “normal agricultural operation,” rendering section 954(a) applicable. The Court held that section 954(a) was a statute of repose; its applicability, as determined by statutory interpretation, was a question of law for courts to decide. Further, the trial court properly held biosolids application fell within the RTFA’s definition of “normal agricultural operation,” which barred appellees’ nuisance claims. Accordingly, the Court reversed the portion of the Superior Court’s order that reversed the grant of summary judgment for appellants on the nuisance claims; the remainder of the order was affirmed. View "Gilbert v. Synagro Central" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a Maine dairy farmer, had a business dispute with Defendant, his neighbor, and the former Commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture (DOA). Soon after taking office, the Commissioner recused himself from regulatory matters involving Plaintiff. The DOA eventually took four adverse regulatory actions against Plaintiff, including the action of ceasing to protect Plaintiff from the regulatory authority of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The DEP then issued several notices of violation of Plaintiff’s license conditions. As a result, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began administrative and judicial proceedings against Plaintiff that resulted in Plaintiff losing his farm. Plaintiff brought this suit for damages against Defendant, claiming that Defendant had violated his First Amendment rights through the adverse actions taken by the DOA. The district court awarded summary judgment against Plaintiff. The First Circuit reversed in part, holding (1) summary judgment was correctly granted with respect tot he three adverse regulatory actions that the DOA was alleged to have taken after the Commissioner’s purported recusal; but (2) there was a genuine issue of material fact with respect to whether the Commissioner’s retaliatory intent was a substantial or motivating factor in the one alleged adverse action that occurred prior to the recusal. Remanded. View "McCue v. Bradstreet" on Justia Law

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The “Swampbuster” provisions of the Food Security Act deny certain farm-program benefits to persons who convert a wetland for agricultural purposes, 16 U.S.C. 3821. Smith challenged the USDA’s determination that Smith had converted 2.24 acres of wetland and was, therefore totally ineligible for benefits. Smith claimed that the Department erred in failing to: analyze whether his purported conversion would have only a minimal effect on surrounding wetlands, a finding that would exempt him from ineligibility; consider factors that would reduce his penalties; and exempt Smith’s parcel because it was originally converted and farmed before the enactment. The district court denied relief. The Sixth Circuit reversed, noting that, while this case only involves 2.24 acres, it has ramifications for thousands of corn and soybean farmers. The USDA had signed a mediation agreement with Smith, permitting him to plant the parcel in the spring and cut down trees so long as Smith did not remove stumps; USDA never argued that Smith intentionally violated this agreement, but permanently deprived him of benefits, in disregard of its own regulations. That Smith’s stance on mitigation may have “colored” the agency’s relationship with him does not mean that USDA is entitled to ignore minimal-effect evidence and a penalty-reduction request. View "Maple Drive Farms Ltd. P'ship v. Vilsack" on Justia Law

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The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commissions (collectively referred to as DFWP) decided to transfer a group of bison to two reservations as part of a quarantine program. Plaintiffs, collectively referred to here as the Citizens for Balanced Use, filed this lawsuit challenging the DFWP action and seeking to enjoin the bison transport. While the bison transport was still in process, the district court entered a temporary restraining order enjoining certain bison movement. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the district court relied upon erroneous grounds for issuing a preliminary injunction under Mont. Code Ann. 27-19-201(3). View "Citizens for Balanced Use v. Maurier" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved the USDA's regulation of Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA), a plant genetically modified by the Monsanto Company and Forage Genetics International to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup). At issue was the Record of Decision (ROD) issued by APHIS, which unconditionally deregulated RRA on the ground that it was not a "plant pest" within the meaning of the term in the Plant Protection Act (PPA), 7 U.S.C. 7701-7772. The court affirmed the judgment of the district court because the statute did not regulate the types of harms that plaintiffs complained of, and therefore, APHIS correctly concluded that RRA was not a "plant pest" under the PPA. Once the agency concluded that RRA was not a plant pest, it no longer had jurisdiction to continue regulating the plant. APHIS's lack of jurisdiction over RRA obviated the need for the agency to consult with the FWS under the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. 1531, and to consider alternatives to unconditional deregulation under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq. Accordingly, the district court properly entered summary judgment in favor of defendants. View "Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack " on Justia Law

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Butler County Diary, LLC (BCD) requested a permit to install a liquid livestock manure pipeline under a public road. Read Township and Butler County cited two regulations it had adopted governing livestock confinement facilities in denying BCD's request. BCD challenged the regulations, alleging that the regulations were invalid and unenforceable. The district court ruled that the Township had the statutory authority to enact the regulations and that they were not preempted by the Livestock Waste Management Act or Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality livestock waste control regulations. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the Township had the statutory authority to enact the pertinent regulations and the regulations were not preempted by state statute or regulation. View "Butler County Dairy, LLC v. Butler County" on Justia Law