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State Rule Change Challenges Protection of Some Residential Farmers


"Voted to adopt changes that will basically strip us of that constitutional right."

  • Michigan's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development approved a rule change Monday that some say will impact small farmers who were once protected by the Right to Farm Act. 
  • The change requires all farmers with livestock, even if it's just one animal, in areas zoned residential to adhere to community requirements. 
  • Before this, the Right to Farm Act, which still requires farmers to comply with Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Practices, trumped any community ordinances or guidelines.
  • As a result, some farmers say they might "reconsider our business plans and may sell the farm and buy a farm in a more rural area."

At Shady Grove Farm in Gwinn, Michigan, 150 egg-laying hens supply 75 dozen eggs per week to a local co-op and restaurant. A flock of sheep provide wool that is turned into clothing and other woolen goods. There are also a few turkeys and meat chickens available for those interested in local poultry.

Photo credit: Shutterstock Photo credit: Shutterstock

"We produce food with integrity," Randy Buchler, owner of the 6.5-acre farm in the state's Upper Peninsula, told TheBlaze Wednesday. "Everything we do here is 100 percent natural -- we like to say it’s beyond organic. We take a lot of pride and care in what we’re doing here."

But farmers like Buchler, who are filling the demand for local products in their community and have felt they were protected under that state's Right to Farm Act, could face new rules imposed on them by their local communities, thanks to a decision from the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development this week.

The change is to the Site Selection Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Practices, which now applies to areas that are primarily residential and that don't allow land to be used for farming. According to the commission, in situations like this, the landowner would need to conform to the community's requirements.

A primarily residential location is one where there are more than 13 homes within 1/8 of a mile of the livestock farming practice or where a home is 250 feet from the proposed facility.

“As interest in urban agriculture as increased, it became clear the language in the previous siting GAAMP was not suitable for livestock in urban and suburban areas,” Commission Chair Diane Hanson said. “The Commission believes this approved management practice recognizes what is generally acceptable for livestock, allows for community involvement in raising livestock in areas where agriculture is a non-expected use and provides continued opportunity for people to be closer to local food sources."

Watch WILX-TV's report about the decision:

Farming operations in the state have been protected from city dwellers moving to rural areas and then complaining and filing lawsuits about the activity through the 1981 Right to Farm Act. The act does require that the operation adhere to Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices, which are established by the state. In 2000, an amendment was enacted that said the Right to Farm Act would "preempt any local ordinance, regulation or resolution that purports to extend or revise in any manner the provisions of this act or generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under this act."

This means, a local government could not trump the act's protection with its own regulations or ordinances, but that's exactly what some farmers think this recent rule change will allow for.

Though Buchler believes his farm, which is zoned as lake residential, meets the new GAAMP site selection requirements he said he knows similar operations will have issues.

Shady Grove Farm in Michigan. (Image source: Randy Buchler) Shady Grove Farm in Michigan. (Image source: Randy Buchler)

Buchler said there are already lawsuits brought on by local governments against farmers challenging their protection under the Right to Farm Act. Buchler's own farm was in such a lawsuit with his township in 2012 and won. He said that some don't seem to understand that the 1999 amendment makes any farm in compliance with GAAMPS protected under the Right to Farm Act.

"There's a lot of unnecessary legal action being taken against small farms who are doing good things in their communities," said Buchler, who is on the board of directors for the Michigan Small Farm Council.

Michelle Regalado Deatrick, who owns an 80-acre farm in an area that is now considered zoned for agriculture but not necessarily suitable for livestock, told the Kalamazoo Gazette that the rule changes have left her in "complete regulatory limbo," because it doesn't explain if she's allowed to have animals or not.

"We're building up a mixed production farm, planning to farm during retirement, and we have a permit in hand for a livestock facility, but have waited with building until we were sure of what the GAAMP changes would be," she told the newspaper. "Now we're having to reconsider our business plans and may sell the farm and buy a farm in a more rural area with definite RTF protection, or move to another state that's more welcoming and protective of small farm rights."

Until Monday's decision, Buchler said Michigan's Right to Farm Act was the most powerful one in the country.

"Now the Commission of Michigan Department of Agriculture voted to adopt changes that will basically strip us of that constitutional right," he said. "My personal opinion is they’ve overstepped the bounds of their authority."

Sheep from Shady Grove Farm. (Image source: Randy Buchler) Sheep from Shady Grove Farm. (Image source: Randy Buchler)

Not everyone in the industry though thinks the rule change is a bad deal. Matthew Kapp with the Michigan Farm Bureau told the Gazette that conforming to local zoning is nothing new for GAAMPs.

"Before yesterday the GAAMP only applied to those farmers who owned more than 50 animal units," he said. Now it applies to "any facility where farm animals as defined in the Right to Farm Act are kept regardless of the number of animals."

"Farmers are reasonable people and the Right to Farm Act was created because people were moving to the nuisance, moving to the country," Kapp said, but now "we have a case where the nuisance [of farm animals] is coming to the people."

Overall, Bulcher said he thinks the rule change will result in lawsuits and could even lead to one against the state's agriculture department. For now though, he said the Michigan Small Farm Council is going through its options to come up with the best solution to "help protect agriculture on all levels in Michigan."

Front page image via James A Artis/Flickr.

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