STORRINGOTN - Advice about maintaining good neighbourly relations was on the agenda for the most recent Farmers Night at the Storrington Lions Club hall.
Robert Stone is an agricultural engineer with OMAFRA. He talked to the audience of some 300 about the Farming and Food Production and Protection Act.
Stone began by saying the act was passed primarily to assist farmers.
"The act gives farmers protection from nuisance complaints ... so that they're able to farm without getting into a lot of complaint problems and lawsuits."
Stone was quick to point out, however, the legislation "does not give farmers the right to pollute. They must operate within boundaries and carry out good practices."
Stone said it's those good or "fair" practices in an agricultural operation which help determine whether a complaint is legitimate.
This newest act was given royal assent a year ago this month, replacing another piece of legislation in place since 1988. Stone said since the act came into existence, he and his colleagues have received between 500 and 700 calls a year, either from someone lodging a complaint or from a farmer seeking protection.
When the calls come in, there's a decision made on whether an investigation is needed. High on the list of complaints from non-farmers are issues surrounding the smell of manure, dead animal disposal and horticultural crop wastes. If some intervention is called for, Stone says the department tries first to mediate between the two parties. In cases where mediation doesn't work, the parties involved can request a full board hearing. At that point, a date is set and a board is assembled from a pool of people with different areas of expertise.
Beth Burrows, another OMAFRA employee, is secretary to the board. Burrows says the panel consists of "leaders in the agricultural community" appointed by the agriculture minister. When the board is required to deal with an issue, members knowledgeable in that particular area, are selected to hear the complaint. Burrows stresses, that while the board is "supported by OMAFRA," it operates "independent" of the ministry.
Says Stone, "The board will look at innovative techniques to see if the practice was a normal farm practice."
"What we're saying is, if the farmer is moving ahead with normal farm practices, a civil suit cannot be brought against him."
Stone provided some examples during his talk. He recalled a situation where a neighbour complained of cow bells "keeping him awake all night." The ruling in that case was that the cow bells were a "normal and acceptable" farm practice. However, it was decided that the farmer would use fewer bells in the future.
Other problems result from a farmer piling manure too close to the neighbour's home. Stone says in such cases, there's often a way to have the farmer move the manure pile farther away.
"We try to head these problems off before they go to a hearing," said Stone, whose department covers 20 counties and districts from Highway 400 to near Kingston as well as communities in Northern Ontario.
Another example Stone brought up was a grower who has to "transport flowers to Toronto at 3 a.m." in order to sell them. Recognizing that the noise can be disturbing to neighbours, Stone says, nonetheless, this is in the normal course of farm practices.
Stone pointed out the board cannot wade into issues already dealt with by "other laws or legislation." However, he said, the board can effect changes.
"If there is a bylaw passed in a municipality that restricts normal farm practices, the farmer could go to the board," Stone explained. "If the farmer wins, he's exempt from the bylaw."
Stone said there's an effort under way to educate both rural residents and people thinking about moving from an urban to rural area.
"We want to get the word out to people buying out in the country they will be facing some nuisances. Some real estate agents are writing in their literature now: 'there could be odours' near the property."
Even though the department receives hundred complaints a year, Stone says there may ultimately be only three board hearings held. Harold Cuthbertson, another agricultural engineer from Stone's office, says many hearings which have been scheduled, are cancelled ahead of time.
"People back out if the complaint was frivolous. They don't want to stand up in front of a bunch of people in their community."
Stone says odour is far and away the most common complaint with "50 per cent" of calls falling into that category.