Opinion: Farmers should talk to neighbors

I worry that Vermont’s industrial-scale dairy farmers (“Manure pit sparks debate in town and beyond,” Sept. 7) will reap a bitter harvest if they don’t exercise the simple, old-fashioned neighborliness that has always been a hallmark of life in rural Vermont.
I’ve seen the tragic story repeat itself in countless agricultural communities across the country. Water and air pollution from large farms where animals are kept in confinement deprives families living nearby of the basic right to enjoy their property. The same pollution lowers the value of that property and makes it difficult to sell. The neighbors’ desperate appeals to politicians and government agencies are stonewalled, leaving no recourse other than suing the farm owner.
These class action “nuisance” suits are usually brought by lawyers who charge no fees to their clients. Instead they take a portion of rewards granted by the court. The farmers are left with enormous legal bills at very least, and often have to pay settlements that run into hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars. Farmers learn to their shock that even the strongest “right to farm” laws in the biggest agricultural states offer no protection against the constitutionally enshrined right of citizens to enjoy their homes and property.
In the end, entire communities are permanently divided. Everybody loses. Anyone living in rural Addison County should reasonably be expected to tolerate the occasional whiff of manure. But where does reasonable end? A manure-filled pit beside a well-traveled road in a beautiful valley? A farmer destroying the peace and quiet of dozens of neighbors by regularly setting off deafening propane blasts to protect a few acres of sweet corn from starlings? A workforce increasingly comprised of undocumented and underpaid immigrants? An industry that, despite years of warnings, still contributes the lion’s share of pollution to Lake Champlain?
These issues should be ironed out neighbor-to-neighbor, not in a courtroom.
Barry Estabrook
Editor’s note: Barry Estabrook is the author of “Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat.”

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