What’s Wrong With Michigan?


Small farms and backyard chicken keepers feel threatened by new Michigan ruling.

Suddenly, the eyes of the nation’s local food movement are focused on Michigan – and not in a good way. Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) Commission voted to modify a provision of the state’s Right to Farm Act regarding proper location for farm animals. Many small farms and families with a few backyard hens are at risk of running afoul of the new regulations.

Like many states, Michigan has had a “Right to Farm” act in place for decades. It is intended to protect large and small farms when the city’s boundaries expand or former urban dwellers move in to a rural area and complain about the smell, noise and other agriculture-related happenings like being stuck behind a slow moving tractor on a rural road. Until now, the Right to Farm act has protected these operations from nuisance lawsuits. But the new rules have small farms and backyard chicken-keepers up in arms.

According to the Commission, the ruling added a new category to the Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Practices (GAAMP) that outline what commercial livestock farming practices are protected from nuisance lawsuits by state law. Typically, if a farm follows the GAAMP, it can expect protection against nuisance lawsuits. But the new rule states that any number of farm animals raised in neighborhoods with more than 13 non-farm homes within 1/8 of a mile of the animals, or with any non-farm home within 250 feet of the proposed facility, will not be in compliance with GAAMP and, therefore, are not offered protection under the Right to Farm act. Why the restrictions? MDARD has the right to determine whether a site is primarily residential. An official MDARD publication states that these areas are not suitable for siting farm animals.

The Commission and some of the ruling’s strongest supporters, like the Michigan Farm Bureau, insist that the ruling needed to change in order to ensure that people raising livestock conform to local zoning ordinances. They further state that it does not jeopardize small farms, nor does it impinge on Michigan residents’ right to raise their own food. But many organizations and individuals are questioning the legitimacy of these arguments. After all, the ruling specifically targets any number of farm animals – even one – and uses restrictive housing density requirements. After all, 250 feet is less than the length of a football field. As I write this today, while my property is more than 3 acres, my neighbors on either side of me are sitting on the 40 yard line.

Gordon Wenk, chief deputy director of MDARD, said there are misconceptions about how the changes will affect individuals. According to Wenk, the Right to Farm Act has only ever applied to commercial agriculture, not an individual’s right to provide his or her own food. However, with the new ruling applying to housing densities on the residential scale and even a single farm animal, it appears to in fact threaten backyard producers. After all, when was the last time you heard of a commercial agriculture operation with only a single farm animal? Furthermore, GAAMP now applies to any number of farm animals whereas, previously, owners of less than 50 animals were exempt. Now, even the smallest producer may be out of compliance.

While the changes do not represent an outright ban on individuals keeping livestock in residential areas, nor do they shut down all small farms, they certainly represent a threat. MDARD points out that local communities can decide to allow farm animals under these circumstances and many Michigan municipalities have done so. But the new ruling is alarming because it does remove a long-standing protection. Randy Buchler, Board Member for the Michigan Small Farm Council, voiced his organization’s concern. “There’s a lot of unnecessary legal action being taken against small farms who are doing good things in their communities.”

While the rest of the nation seems to be embracing the self-sufficiency and locavore movement, Michigan has taken a huge step backwards. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a report stating that the world is currently in grave danger of entering a post-antibiotic era. The report explains “a post-antibiotic era – in which common infections and minor injuries can kill – far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century. Director General of the WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, warned that among the chief causes of antibiotic resistance is the use of antibiotics in the food supply. Factory farms and Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) rely heavily on the use of antibiotics, not only for treatment of sick animals, but as a preventative measure. Concerned consumers are looking to small scale sustainable livestock producers for antibiotic and hormone-free meat and eggs or opting to grow their own.

Michigan’s ruling caught a lot of folks off guard, but the spotlight is now firmly focused on the battle to support the right to farm – on any scale. The battle is being waged in the media, it is sure to be waged in court as the ruling is challenged, but the real fight is taking place in backyards and farm fields across the state. Small farms and backyard livestock keepers across the nation are right to be alarmed and should follow this story as it develops as it could have broad implications elsewhere. The call to action is to let your city council, Board of Supervisors and other elected officials know that the right to farm is sacred and worth protecting. This is one battle that should not go quietly into the night.