Rebecca Worby/High Country News —
After years of wrangling and weeks of trial, a jury says a huge chicken farm can stay put in western Colorado. This complicated trespass case pitted Susan Raymond, a local veterinarian, against her neighbor, Edwin Hostetler, who operates a 15,000 hen egg-laying facility.
Raymond claimed that her health, her veterinary business, and the value of her property had suffered as a result of emissions from Hostetler’s farm.
The decision marks a major moment in a tense five-year conflict. In the fall of 2013, the Delta County District Court ordered the Board of County Commissioners to issue a cease and desist order for the facility, deeming it “incompatible with the neighborhood.” But the Colorado Court of Appeals later overturned the verdict, allowing the chicken house to reopen.
A disagreement between neighbors on Powell Mesa in rural Delta County — where there are no hard zoning regulations — may seem minor. But it has significant implications for the rights of farmers and individual property owners. The Delta County Farm and Livestock Bureau has been actively involved, hosting fundraisers for Hostetler’s defense and galvanizing members to support his cause. “We determined, long ago, that they were a good, well run outfit and a family farm,” Olen Lund, the president of the Delta Farm Bureau, told me after the verdict.
In March, Lund, who is also a former Delta County Commissioner, wrote to Forrest Lucas, an oil executive and the founder of a nonprofit called Protect the Harvest, which opposes “animal rights groups and anti-farming extremists.” In his letter, Lund requested financial support for the Hostetler defense and help getting the word out. If Raymond were to win, Lund wrote, “a disgruntled neighbor, or purposeful activist group, would have precedent to single out a single operator and legally ‘hound’ them to their demise.” In a recent interview, Hostetler agreed. “This is an issue that’s far-reaching,” he said.
Lund’s letter spurred Protect the Harvest to post a call to action on its website: “We need to pull together to help support this family. Please spread the word, and if you can, donate.” The post included Lund’s letter in full, as well as an address to send checks directly to the Delta Farm Bureau. According to Lund, the Farm Bureau has received donations from “dozens if not hundreds” of people, though these contributions cover only “a pretty small fraction” of Hostetler’s legal fees.
Citing concerns about the Farm Bureau’s influence and negative treatment by the local media, Raymond attempted multiple times to have the trial moved to another county. “I’m not fighting my neighbor,” Raymond told me. “I’m fighting the Farm Bureau.”
Raymond testified on May 24, neatly dressed in a gray blazer and a black-and-white patterned scarf. She explained that she moved to Powell Mesa, a patchwork of farms and residences along a partly paved road with clear views of the West Elk Mountains, with her family in 1964 when she was 10.
Her family’s farm — then 80 acres, close to 60 now — was “a playground,” she told the court. She left to attend college and veterinary school, but after her father passed away in 1983, Raymond returned to live on the property. She opened a veterinary practice on the premises and raised two children. She’s lived there ever since. “My farm is my life,” she said. “It’s my livelihood.”
Raymond spoke with pride of the prize-winning horses she used to breed. Around the same time she began that enterprise — the mid-1990s — Edwin Hostetler, a tall man with a tuft of gray goatee who appeared in court wearing a button-down shirt and vest, bought a neighboring property, where he and his wife began raising cattle. Their relationship was fine, Raymond said; he was a good neighbor.
Raymond heard about Hostetler’s chicken farm plans in late 2010 and grew concerned when she learned of the proposed operation’s size. She asked Hostetler if he’d consider building somewhere “more suitable.” Hostetler’s organic, free-range egg-laying facility, which lies about 1,000 feet from Raymond’s property, began operating in April 2012.
Soon after, Raymond noticed a change in air quality. The airborne emissions from the egg-laying operation cast a “haze” over her property, she told the court. She described white dust coating surfaces in her veterinary clinic and home, and tiny white feathers floating in the sunbeams that streamed through the windows. Raymond often slept with her windows open to keep cool, and sometimes, she claimed, she woke up to an odor wafting over from the facility. “It was so overpowering I would feel like I wanted to retch,” she said. On some mornings, she awoke with feathers stuck to her face.
The intrusions Raymond and her lawyer identified in court went far beyond feathers: They described a plume of particulates and biological materials (bacteria, mold, fungal spores) emanating from the chicken farm and reaching Raymond’s property. Several of Raymond’s horses became ill after the chicken facility opened; a few had to be put down. Raymond herself came down with physical symptoms she attributes to the chicken operation: itchy eyes, trouble breathing. Her stamina suffered, too. “I used to be able to keep up with any 20-year-old,” she said. “Now I run out of air.” Raymond’s voice shook as she described having to stop performing long surgeries because flies and dust in her clinic increased the risk of infection.
Much of Raymond’s testimony was refuted during cross-examination by Hostetler’s lawyer, Brandon Jensen. Couldn’t the road be the source for the particulates on her property? Why were there no photos of the fine white powder in the house? Why wasn’t the dust tested? The feathers were never tested either; was it possible they’d been there all along? Might Raymond’s loss of stamina be age-related?
In his closing argument, Jensen contended that not only was Raymond’s exposure on Powell Mesa “inconsequential,” but it “could’ve come from virtually anywhere.” The jury concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to say trespass had occurred.
For Hostetler, the issue comes down to the practical necessity of large-scale farming: “It’s just important that we realize where our food comes from,” he told me. “It doesn’t come from a grocery store; it comes from the farm.” Eggs from the Hostetler farm are distributed to chains like King Soopers and Whole Foods, mainly within Colorado.
From the perspective of the Farm Bureau, Hostetler’s facility is a family farm operating in good faith, and should therefore be protected by what’s known as the Right to Farm statute. Designed to protect farms from conflicts with neighboring land uses, these statutes vary significantly from state to state. Colorado’s is somewhat vague about when it can apply. But in attempting to protect farmers who are being sued, Right to Farm statutes might tip the scales in their favor.
“That’s been one of the issues about Right to Farm statutes from the very beginning,” Rusty Rumley, senior staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center, said. According to Rumley, this case could set a precedent for other Right to Farm litigation in Colorado. It could also be cited in cases elsewhere, though judges would not be bound by it.
Amid all this tumult around farmers’ rights, Raymond still wonders where her rights and her property fit in. Raymond, after all, is a farmer, too. “I’m not against ag,” she told me after the verdict, which could be appealed. “Just put it where it’s not going to hurt people.”
Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News.