Every U.S. state has laws on the books designed to protect farms from being declared “nuisances” by their neighbors, and Michigan is no exception. But in 2014, the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development exempted small farms from this protection with the stroke of a pen.
The revised rule states that local governments can, at their discretion (that is, arbitrarily), ban goats, chickens and beehives from any property that has a residence within 250 feet of its boundary, or that has 13 homes within one-eighth of a mile.
Although media coverage at the time focused on how this would affect urban and backyard farmers, the rule change as written actually puts all small farmers at risk, even those in rural and agricultural areas. The only farms that seem safe are those in areas dominated by massive, sprawling agricultural operations – that is, those owned by Big Agriculture.
The decision “effectively remove[s] Right to Farm Act protection for many urban and suburban backyard farmers raising small numbers of animals,” said Gail Philburn of the Michigan Sierra Club, as reported by Michigan Live.
Small farms are the future!
The point of Michigan’s 1981 Right to Farm Act was to prevent urban people who moved to the country from using anti-nuisance laws against the farms that had been there first. From the time it was passed, it was always interpreted to protect urban and backyard farms, as well as large rural operations.
The Right to Farm Act only protects farms that conform to the state’s Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMP); it was this set of rules that was amended to contain the new provision. The GAAMP had already said that local zoning ordinances could regulate animal operations; previously, however, this only applied to operations with more than 50 animals. Lowering the bar drastically to 13 animals, was interpreted as an attempt to wipe out small-scale animal farms – an effort that critics blasted as out of step with a growing interest in small, local agriculture.
“The Michigan Agriculture Commission passed up an opportunity to support one of the hottest trends in food in Michigan – public demand for access to more local, healthy, sustainable food,” Philbin said.
Critics noted that the ruling closely followed a World Health Organization report blaming large-scale animal operations for contributing to a major public health crisis of antibiotic resistance through their overuse of the drugs as growth-promoters. It also came only a day after USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced funding for research into the benefits of small family farms.
“There’s a lot of unnecessary legal action being taken against small farms who are doing good things in their communities,” said Randy Buchler, a small farmer and board member of the Michigan Small Farm Council.
Pandering to Big Agriculture
Small farm advocates interpreted the new rules as a giveaway to big agriculture, which feels threatened by the growing interest in locally and sustainably produced food.
“The commission is essentially taking sides in the marketplace,” Philbin said.
“They don’t want us little guys feeding ourselves,” said Michigan resident Kim White, who had been raising backyard rabbits and chickens. “They want us to go all to the big farms. They want to do away with small farms and I believe that is what’s motivating it.”
Indeed, the rule change was endorsed by the Michigan Farm Bureau, which took the position that the Right to Farm Act was not meant to protect small farms. In a conflict of interest bordering on open corruption, the Farm Bureau’s government relations specialist, Matthew Kapp, was actually a member of the committee that wrote the new rule.
“Farm Bureau has become another special interest beholden to big business and out of touch with small farmers, and constitutional and property rights of the little guy,” small-scale operator Pine Hallow Farms wrote to the Michigan Small Farm Council.
Sources for this article include: