Since the inception of Michigan’s Right to Farm Act (P.A. 93) in 1981, it’s served as a model to protect agricultural operations from nuisance suits and local ordinances in states across the country. This changed on April 28, 2014, when the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development made amendments that directly affect small-scale farmers in urban, suburban and rural settings alike.
I’d read a headline about this issue, and then a “News Hog” reader in Casco, Mich., left this comment for me: “The Michigan Dept. of Agriculture recently rescinded the Right to Farm law in Michigan, specifically citing small farms with goats, sheep, [chickens] and bees might be in conflict with non-farming neighbors. While this may be true in urban farming locations, it also affects those of us in rural areas that keep small livestock, if our property has been zoned residential, which most of it is, unless it is a large commercial farm property.”
So this clearly got my attention.
It turns out, the RTFA was not rescinded, rather the Michigan Ag Department revised the Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices under which they say farms should operate and now excludes many Michigan residents. These practices are “scientifically based” (according to MDARD) guidelines in eight areas of farming:
- manure management and utilization
- pesticide utilization and pest control
- nutrient utilization
- care of farm animals
- cranberry production
- site selection and odor control for new and expanding livestock facilities
- irrigation water use
- farm markets
These are revised annually and only apply to commercial operations—although the Michigan Small Farm Council points out there’s no definition of “commercial,” meaning even someone selling eggs to friends and neighbors can be considered a commercial operation. Following the GAAMPs is voluntary, though to be protected under the RTFA, a farmer must follow these guidelines.
According to the Michigan Ag Department, “By utilizing GAAMPs, farmers and Michigan residents bene?t: through environmental protection of natural resources; sound management of agricultural inputs; and sustaining a strong and stable agricultural industry. While adherence to the GAAMPs does not act as a complete barrier to complaints or lawsuits, it does provide an umbrella of protection from nuisance litigation.”
A Category 4 site selection was added to the Site Selection GAAMPs, outlined to be “primarily residential, as defined, are locations where there are more than 13 homes within 1/8 of a mile of the site or any home within 250 feet of the proposed facility. If the site is determined to be primarily residential, and zoning doesn’t allow agriculture as a use by right, then it falls into a Category 4 and is not considered an area acceptable as a livestock facility.”
The Category 4 site description was added despite a public comment period that yielded hundreds of responses in opposition to any change that would limit small- and urban-farming opportunity in the state. For small-scale and backyard farmers with cranky or begrudging neighbors, this change means the end of protection from nuisance lawsuits and other legal action. Whether to allow agricultural pursuits is now in the hands of individual municipalities rather than offering farmers umbrella protection across the state as a whole. (The legal language of many documents available through MDARD can be confusing, but an easy-to-understand FAQ document clarifies things a little.)
Your Right to Farm
Do you know what your state’s Right To Farm Act looks like? Now’s a good time to read it so you can understand the type of legal-action protection your state offers to you. Look on your state department of agriculture website, give the office a call if you can’t find it there, or search for it on the joint USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust Farmland Information Center web page.
Help out a farmer in Michigan, too. Tell MDARD your opinion about this change to the Site Selection GAAMPs with a letter (MDARD, P.O. Box 30017, Lansing, MI 48909) or telephone call 517-373-9797 or 877-632-1783.