From Minnesota comes an interesting case for organic farmers who grow their crops adjacent to non-organic farms. Johnson v. Paynesville Farmers Union Coop. Oil Co.,(2011 Minn. App. LEXIS 92), concerns the ruinous effects pesticide drift may have for neighboring organic producers.

The plaintiff in this case,Oluf Johnson, made the switch to organic production back in the 90’s. Despite ringing his organic fields in buffer strips, he had repeated problems with pesticide drift from over-spraying of pesticides on an adjacent farm. The drift periodically destroyed his organic certification for the land affected by the drift.

After several unsuccessful attempts to remedy the issue with the sprayer, Oluf initiated this action. His first case was dismissed in part on procedural grounds (statute of limitations). More importantly, the trial court did not agree with the theory of his case. Oluf grounded his complaint in the law of trespass, an unlawful interference with one’s possessory rights which creates economic damage. The trial court did not believe the damage was significant enough to rise to the level of a trespass.

This appeal is the first case in Minnesota’s jurisprudence that determined pesticide drift to be a trespass, not a nuisance. The legal distinction made by the court in this case is an important one. A nuisance is an interference with one’s enjoyment and use of property. Trespass is an interference with possession to land.

In other words, if some offensive vapors from an adjacent hog farm spoil my backyard barbecue, it is a nuisance. I enjoy my barbecue much less, but the party still goes on. If the manure lagoon bursts on the adjacent hog farm and then flows into mine, it is a trespass. The negligence of my neighbor has deprived me of more than my barbecue because I can no longer use my backyard for anything. In a nuisance case, I enjoy my land less. In trespass, I enjoy it not at all. The damages for trespass action are equal to the total loss of my right to profit from my land.

On this appeal, Oluf successfully argued that his neighbor’s interference with his organic farm was legally equivalent to an eviction from his own land.

Though the financial rewards are there, the economic burden of switching to organic production are well documented. In Minnesota at least, negligent destruction of a farmer’s organic certification is tantamount to dispossession. This decision acknowledges the special investment organic producers make in their land when they make the switch to organic production. As organic farming proliferates, I expect this line of reasoning to prevail in more and more states.