A bitter three-year legal battle between a Todd County hog farm and neighbors forced out of their homes by foul smells has become a flash point in the larger fight over Minnesota's expanding pork business and the power of rural residents to protect their tranquil way of life.

The struggle has spilled over into the Legislature, where pork producers are trying to limit so-called nuisance suits brought by feedlot neighbors.

Together they illustrate how dramatically rural life in Minnesota has changed as farms grow bigger and more mechanized.

"The days of the Old MacDonald farm and everyone having two pigs and four cows are over," said Jason Kreemer, a neighbor of the Todd County hog operation who sees such evolution as inevitable.

Opponents to the proposed law point out that such lawsuits are exceedingly rare in Minnesota — there have been only a handful in the past 15 years — and say banning them would deprive rural residents of one of their last remaining protections against large livestock operations. Moreover, they say, it's an attack on a centuries-old property right that protects citizens' ability to use and enjoy their homes, one that could quickly extend to conflicts beyond feedlots.

Leaders in the hog industry, however, say such cases are on the rise elsewhere, and, like the one in Todd County, are supported by national advocacy groups fundamentally opposed to practices essential to the modern livestock industry. No one, they say, should have the right to sue them for being a nuisance if they comply with the law.

But in court documents and at the Capitol, the neighbors tell a different story — one where their entreaties to public officials about noise, dust and "soul crushing" smells fell on deaf ears, leaving them no choice but to go to court.

"I want you to remember my face when you are passing this kind of legislation," said Aimee Goodwin at a committee hearing earlier this year, after saying her family was forced to move out when the hog facility moved in next door. "We had no other option."

'We hire a lot of people'

The hog farmers, four brothers who own Gourley Premium Pork, came from Iowa and bought 40 acres of land west of Long Prairie for a sow and piglet facility that holds up to about 4,000 adult animals. Like many operators of confined feedlots, they wanted a site far from other pig facilities to escape the risk of viral infection that has plagued Iowa and other states with high densities of hog farming.

So they expanded north into an area where large facilities are still a rarity.

Officials from the pork industry say the trend is good for rural economies that need jobs in well-managed, family-owned operations like the Gourleys'. They also note that such conflicts are uncommon in parts of Minnesota where large feedlots have long been part of the landscape.

"We consider ourselves a big part of the economy here in Minnesota," said Paul FitzSimmons, a partner in Protein Sources, who manages the Todd County facility. "We hire a lot of people."

But others fear that Todd County, which advertises itself as the place "Where the Forest Meets the Prairie," has a future that looks a lot like Iowa.

"They couldn't raise [hogs] anymore because they had so much disease in the air," said Greg Rechtzigel, an over-the-road truck driver who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit but dropped out because he was gone too much to participate. "Now [they] want to come up to Minnesota and ruin the environment up here."

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency signed off on the Gourleys' permit in 2012. And after a contentious public hearing, the Todd County Board approved the facility, which agreed to abide by all county requirements, including setbacks, air monitoring and a covered manure pit.

Gourley Brothers opened for business in July 2013; a year later eight longtime residents who all lived within a half-mile of the facility sued them.

The plaintiffs declined to be interviewed for this story, but in court filings they say that within months their homes became unlivable.

"In our backyard, we have a couple of apple trees," said one, Joel Walsh, in court documents. "I couldn't hardly stand to pick because on the other side of those trees was where they had their dead bodies. The smell was so bad."

Goodwin, who lived about 2,000 feet from the facility, told legislators the dust and smell became so bad that her youngest son began having terrifying asthma attacks. "He couldn't play outside, he couldn't wait for the bus," she said. Then, after her son had an attack so severe they feared they couldn't get to the hospital in time, they moved.

"That was the day the fight was over," she said. "It didn't matter how much we loved our home."

Other residents say the Gourley brothers have been good neighbors and that they haven't had any problems with odors or dust.

"Very rarely have I noticed anything," said Kreemer, who lives about a half-mile away. The Gourleys have been good for the local economy — he hauls hogs for them and uses their manure on his farm, he said.

Old English law

Leaders in the Minnesota pork industry say it's not the neighbors they fear as much as the attorney who represents them: Charlie Speer, a Missouri-based lawyer, who has built a career on winning tens of millions of dollars for clients in similar lawsuits across the country. And by his side is an attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, which has been involved in similar lawsuits across the country.

In short, said FitzSimmons, the future of Minnesota's hog industry could hinge on the Gourley brothers' case. "That's what's changed — the players," he said. "This is an attack on animal agriculture. You can't stand down."

Speer says his clients come to him out of desperation.

"When cases come to us, clients have exhausted every effort," Speer said. "It's basically a failure of government to protect them."

Jack Perry, a pork industry lobbyist who also represents the Gourley brothers and FitzSimmons in the lawsuit, said their facility complies with all state and county laws.

But Speer and other attorneys say that's beside the point.

They say the question is, regardless of legal compliance, whether the neighbors have been deprived of their right to enjoy and use their homes. It's a property right that goes back to English law in the 1600s, one that Speer has used successfully against many feedlots.

The Todd County judge overseeing the case agreed. He ruled last year that the suit can go to trial over the odor, and that a jury will decide who's right.

A trial date has not been set.

In fact, the vast majority of Minnesota ag operations of all kinds are already protected from such nuisance suits by a suite of legal protections that have grown over time under so called "right to farm laws." Today, the only facilities that can be sued for nuisance claims are those that don't comply with the law, and the largest cattle and swine facilities.

Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, said now his industry is simply seeking the same kind of protections that other livestock operators have now. And citizens could still sue within two years of a new facility's construction, he noted.

Opponents say the bill is part of a larger effort to suppress public outcry in rural areas about the effect of industrial agriculture.

Big ag "wants to take away the opportunities for rural people to have their concerns heard," said Bobby King, of the Land Stewardship Project, which advocates for small farmers and conservation.

The Legislature will take up the measure when it returns next week, although the Todd County case will go forward regardless.

Meanwhile, Rechtzigel, the truck driver in Todd County, is planting 200 trees along his property line. When he retires and no longer travels 260 days a year, he hopes they will be tall enough to provide a buffer between his house and the swine barn.