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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Farm Noise

Air Date: Week of

Residents of Amherst, Massachusetts are set to vote on whether farmers are exempt from a local noise ordinance. As Pippin Ross reports, the man who filed a lawsuit about the early morning noise has caused farmers to band together to fight for, what they say is, their right to make a living.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's becoming a common story in sprawling America. City folks move to the country for peace, quiet, and pastoral beauty, only to wind up complaining about their new neighbors: farmers and farm animals. The smell of manure and waste runoff can sour the relationship. And of course, there's noise. A farmer's work is never done, and that means they're up at all hours running their machines when some new residents would rather be sleeping. In one New England community, the issue is being handled in the traditional way: the annual town meeting. Amherst, Massachusetts, will soon decide if farmers can run tractors, trucks, and chainsaws at any time of day. Pippin Ross has our report.


ROSS: It's a quarter of six in the morning, and this is the sound of the Wagner Sawmill and Dairy Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts. Not exactly a din, but enough of a racket to be heard by Ken Bernstein, a therapist who lives about half a mile away. The noise wakes him up hours earlier than he wants to wake up. And after a year, it's taken a toll.

BERNSTEIN: I was not sleeping. I was not a happy guy. I was not able to function very well, parent, or work very well.

ROSS: It all came to a head over the summer when Bernstein called the police ten times, to no avail. He then learned that Amherst has a bylaw prohibiting loud noises late at night and early in the morning. Armed with that information, Bernstein sought the advice of the town's lawyer.

BERNSTEIN: Who determined that the town bylaw seemed to include the farmers, who were obliged to operate within the hours of 7 AM and 11 PM. And this was waking me at 5:15 in the morning.

ROSS: The so-called noise ordinance was originally intended to control loud partying in the college town. Confident the law would help restore his sleep, Bernstein took his neighbor, farmer Howard Wagner, to court. The Wagner family has farmed the local hills for 62 years. The sawmill, which runs six days a week, was recently added to supplement dwindling income from their dairy farm. Howard Wagner was stunned when he received the court summons.

WAGNER: We didn't know who he was. He'd never come to see us and talk to us at all. So we had to go, had to get the lawyer and do it up the right way. And that was the end of that.

ROSS: Bolstered by a stack of letters from neighbors saying the farm's sawmill didn't bother them, farmer Wagner was found not guilty of violating the noise ordinance. But the ruling was in no way an end to the saga. The court appearance infuriated local farmers.

WOMAN: They didn't leave.

MAN: They didn't leave.


ROSS: The farmers met and drafted an amendment to the noise ordinance exempting all agricultural enterprises, everything from fish farming to landscaping. Farm council chair James Pitts says newcomers and urban transplants need to understand farms generate more than pretty scenery.

PITTS: So it's not only the noise. It's not only the smells. It's a whole range of things that people misunderstand about agriculture. And it's an educational process. I think a lot of us are used to it now. You ask if we get angry. Eh. No, we get even. No, actually -- (laughter)

ROSS: And hold their ground, says Dan Cooley, coordinator of the University of Massachusetts Agro-ecology program. Those fleeing cities for the country need to understand that without viable family farms, there won't be any countryside.

COOLEY: To stay economically viable these days, you need to be able to do heavy work, sometimes at strange hours. So if somebody is spreading manure at four in the afternoon when the kids come home, well, maybe the aroma has to be put up with a little bit.

ROSS: Sitting in his living room at daybreak, Ken Bernstein says he had no idea his complaint would hit such a raw nerve in the community. And he's hoping the tension will blow over soon.

BERNSTEIN: I think I was naive, and I don't think I was quite aware of the issues.

ROSS: Bernstein says at this point he'll figure out how to live with the noise. The noise ordinance exemption is expected to sail through the October thirtieth town meeting. The hope is such a pro-farming bylaw on the books will make it clear to people thinking about moving to Amherst that the town supports its farmers, even if on occasion they do things that stink and wake people up. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross in Amherst, Massachusetts.



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