‘Right to Farm’ Act Protects Small-Scale Farmers

Small-scale farmers could be forced to shut down their operations if they’re producing goods in an area zoned as non-agricultural. Smartly written Right to Farm laws could help these producers stay in business.
By Peter Kennedy
August/September 2013
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Shady Grove Farm in Gwinn, Mich., is owned by Randy and Libby Buchler. These small-scale farmers are protected by the state’s Right to Farm act.
Photo By Randy Buchler
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If we want true food security — defined as the ability of a country, region, state or community to be as self-sufficient in food production as possible — then we need a legal system that supports local, small-scale food production.

Farms that fit this bill turn out healthful food, guard against shortages, stabilize local economies and instill community camaraderie.

As suburbs spread steadily across our continent, however, small farmers are continually facing problems with local zoning codes and nuisance complaints, even when their operations have not caused any injury to their neighbors. Although state Right to Farm laws are sometimes written to protect Big Ag, Right to Farm laws that support small-scale farmers can be a key aspect of creating sustainable, local food systems.

Michigan is ahead of the curve when it comes to setting up legal protections for small-scale farmers, and the state’s Right to Farm laws are making a real difference.

Case in point: Randy and Libby Buchler of Shady Grove Farm, who raise chickens and sheep, and sell eggs and wool locally. Their 6.5-acre property is zoned as “Lake Residential.” In 2009, Forsyth Township in Michigan filed a lawsuit to shut down Shady Grove Farm, citing it as a nuisance because its existence violated the local zoning ordinance that prohibited any type of agricultural activity. In December 2012, however, a Michigan judge ruled that the Buchlers’ farming operations were protected by the Michigan Right to Farm Act (RTFA), and denied the township’s lawsuit.

Not only is the Buchler story a heartening victory for advocates of communities with agriculture as their hub, but the family’s case has also made an impact in Michigan and elsewhere. A number of other Michigan court decisions have cited the RTFA when ruling in favor of small-scale farmers accused of violating zoning ordinances.

The Michigan RTFA protects from nuisance complaints any farm that is engaged in “the commercial production, harvesting and storage of farm products,” regardless of sales volume, so long as the farm operation conforms to Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices as established by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). MDARD has a program under which Michigan farmers can be verified as following the Michigan Accepted Practices; it’s called the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). The Buchlers of Shady Grove Farm became MAEAP-verified, which ultimately helped them win the case filed against their farm.

The Michigan RTFA is a template for the defense and encouragement of local food production and the restoration of agriculture to its rightful place — integrated into communities. Those interested in pushing for or amending Right to Farm legislation in their states can contact the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to defend the rights of farmers. The Defense Fund is also a good resource for small farms seeking help with other legal challenges. Visit the Farm-to-Consumer website, or call 703-208-3276.








Post a comment below.

 

OffGridLivingForFree
9/16/2014 12:02:27 PM
The only thing left for me to do is to bankrupt the State of Michigan. I am becoming as big a burden as possible without contributing a single red cent toward State revenue. Keep placing restrictions Michigan, and keep supporting me and my ever increasing taxing demands upon your system. You will go bankrupt soon, I am working on it.

JoshuaEldenBRady
8/28/2013 3:28:31 PM
BornAgainFarmGirl - it is interesting that you talk about breaking the law. Part of our system of government is that even the law has to follow the law. For example, we still have at least one state that requires segregated schools, but since federal law (and the constitution) prohibit the state law from saying that it is not law because it breaks a higher law. Similarly with local zoning. The local government has to follow certain state laws when it enacts zoning (a local rezoning attempt here in Muskegon was recently thrown out because it did not). Any local government that tries to pass a law that does not follow state law is breaking the law and the thing they attempted to pass is not the law. When the state amended the right to farm law in 1999, they made it illegal for any local government to pass (or try to enforce or even to keep on the books) any law that tried to restrict farming beyond the rules in the GAAMPs. So in fact not only is a farmer not breaking the law by ignoring 'zoning' that contradicts the Michigan right to farm act and the GAAMPs (because the higher law says it is not law at all), but the local government is breaking the law every day that they do not change the zoning to follow the law. At the end of the day I don't care who you talked to that told you otherwise. I don't care because we are a republic and not a dictatorship. That means that we are all bound to follow the written law says, not what those in power want it to say. And just as we have to follow the law above us, so do those who write laws.

ShadyGroveFarmUP
7/23/2013 10:47:58 AM

BornAgainFarmGirl...I am not saying the MRTFA was ever intended to cover urban farms.  However, the 1999-2000 amendment allows for just that.  And, it does not cover simply backyard chickens.  We are a commercial farm and meet the definitions in the MRTFA as a FARM, we have FARM PRODUCTS and are COMMERCIAL IN NATURE.  Not sure who you spoke with, but if it was Wayne Whitman, he is the ONLY person that ever told us it doesn't apply.  However, in his deposition, it was different than what he had told me previously.  There are certain criteria that a farm MUST follow in order to gain this protection, and we follow them.  We are the only environmentally verified farm in Marquette County, the largest county in the State of Michigan.  This verification was done by MDARD themselves, so, obviously they feel we qualify for the protections of the MRTFA.  Actually, one of the MAEAP verifiers told me, "You now have Right to Farm protection".  Believe me, it was a long 42 months, but I learned a ton about the MRTFA and how it works, regardless of what certain people are telling you folks about how they would LIKE it to work.  Not really sure why you are accusing us of doing a disservice to people.  You have no idea what I have said to anybody regarding such.  If someone contacts me about using the MRTFA for 3 chickens in their backyard, I tell them that it will most likely not work for them, but only a court of law could make that determination.  Also, not sure if you are aware of it or not, but State laws trump or local ordinances, therefore, we are not breaking any laws.  Nobody ever said the MRTFA protects everybody that has a chicken or a goat, etc.  If a municipality puts into place an ordinance pertaining to the keeping of chickens or livestock for personal use, then they have the right to govern such.  We have worked very hard to try and make that happen here.  Anyway, what you need to understand is the difference between whether or not "they" intended for the MRTFA to cover urban farming and the fact that it does indeed cover farms, regardless of their zoning, if they follow applicable GAAMPs.  So, if you want to tell them the "truth", tell them that the MRTFA MAY cover them depending on the circumstances, but it does NOT cover everybody that has livestock or farms in a non-ag district.  This victory is a GOOD thing and will only help us strengthen our local food systems. I hope that you will realize that and realize that the untruths told by certain members of the MDARD are only to distract and deter folks from standing up for our rights. 


BornAgainFarmGirl
7/22/2013 9:53:06 PM

ShadyGroveFarmUp, I did a lot of research on this topic and talked to folks and I am sorry to say MRTFA was NEVER intended to cover urban folk. And GAMPS is nothing more then a standard of practie, period, nothing more. The only reason I am being so vocal about this is that if people are breaking a zoning law, they ARE breaking a law. And by people saying but your covered under the MRTFA when in fact they aren't is getting a lot of people in legal trouble. You may think your right and you may believe that the Judge didn't "interpret" the law, but that is exactly what he did and that is why you have different judges rendering different verdicts on similar matters. Continue to fight the good fight, but make sure you tell people to follow the laws and not scream MRTFA when they get hauled into court for breaking zoning laws. Believe what you will but I know who I talked to, the information given to me by those "in power", and the reality that the MRTFA was NEVER ment to cover residentialy zoned areas. I think you are doing a disservice to and endanger people legally by telling them otherwise.... you break a law, your in legal trouble. It is not that people don't have a right to farm in the properly zoned areas, but that people do what ever they want, where ever they want regardless of the laws... there are laws for a reason.... would I like a goat? Yes! Can I have one? No because where I live it is against the law and I do not have the right to break a law just because I don't agree with it. Then what happens to the fabric of civilized society? Every time one of these cases goes to court and people claim the MRTFA when they have indeed broke a law like zoning, makes it harder on the next group in the next town who are trying to get laws passed the through proper means for things like keeping backyard chickens or a goat.... just saying.... people need to follow the law or work to change it, but not just claim MRTFA when it was not ever ment to cover them. Okay I am all done... may you all do with my little soap box rant what you will.... I just know what I will tell people, the truth, so they don't end up in leagal trouble....


RANDYJ
7/22/2013 10:05:27 AM

Thanks for all your input. Keep us posted as it unfolds..........


RaZ
7/22/2013 9:08:21 AM

I'm getting comments in my e-mail but none are visible on the website comments section. Any help?


ShadyGroveFarmUP
7/22/2013 8:54:55 AM

Sorry, not sure why mine posted twice and I can't figure out how to delete it.  But I should clarify, they didn't try to change the amendment, they tried changing the definition of a "Livestock Production Facility" to include 1 chicken and up instead of 50 animal units (5,000 chickens), which would in turn make it so that the Site Selection GAAMP applies to EVERYONE!  If people are able and hopefully willing to stand up for our rights, then you should attend the Ag Committee meetings where these proposed changes to the GAAMPs are discussed and voted on.  There are some small farmers on our Michigan Small Farm Council (MSFC) who are working toward getting on these GAAMP committees to represent small, family farms too.  We must be pro-active and get/stay involved!   


ShadyGroveFarmUP
7/22/2013 8:48:00 AM

BornAgainFarmGirl, they tried changing the 1999-2000 amendment in the Right to Farm Act this year, but we (Michigan Small Farm Council, Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and small farm advocates) were able to stop it.  Corporate Ag does NOT want small farms protected, but the way it is written, that IS how it works.  Judge Solka didn't interpret the law as he saw fit, he ruled by how the law is currently written.  Also, they aren't trying to "re-write" the Right to Farm Act.  They are wanting to change the GAAMPs so that small farmers, urban farmers, non corporate ag farmers are not protected.  Be careful about what you believe from the MDARD.  I was told many untruths by them in the beginning stages of our quest for Food Freedom.  The Michigan Right to Farm Act is one of, if not the most, powerful farm acts in the country.  If more small farmers don't start standing up for our rights, you are correct, "us small guys" won't be protected.  SCgirl, as far as knowing our elected officials on the local level, that is a great idea.  Because I know ours and know that they selectively enforce their zoning (which is in direct conflict with the MRTFA I might add), we had no choice but to end up in court.  We tried for over 2 years to work with them to make some amendments to the current zoning or even write new pertaining to agriculture at some level in ALL zoned districts.  But, one of them was overheard after a meeting making a statement along the lines of "if we take them to court, they can't afford to fight it".  If local gov't doesn't support and/or encourage local food systems and environmentally sound operations, we have no choice but to utilize the laws that are in place for our protection.  I have done many hundreds of hours of research and work on the protections of the MRTFA and worked with multiple attorneys, MSU extension folks, etc.  It is very clear what the MRTFA protects at this time and we need to keep it that way.


FarmrChrys
7/22/2013 8:39:45 AM

FarmGirl, Lawyers and judges don't "interpret the law as they see fit," they enforce the law as it is written, even if the state is aghast that the law was written in such a way. Sometimes democracy can still work in this day and age when enough citizens organize a strong campaign.


ShadyGroveFarmUP
7/22/2013 8:27:35 AM

BornAgainFarmGirl, they tried changing the 1999-2000 amendment in the Right to Farm Act this year, but we (Michigan Small Farm Council, Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and small farm advocates) were able to stop it.  Corporate Ag does NOT want small farms protected, but the way it is written, that IS how it works.  Judge Solka didn't interpret the law as he saw fit, he ruled by how the law is currently written.  Also, they aren't trying to "re-write" the Right to Farm Act.  They are wanting to change the GAAMPs so that small farmers, urban farmers, non corporate ag farmers are not protected.  Be careful about what you believe from the MDARD.  I was told many untruths by them in the beginning stages of our quest for Food Freedom.  The Michigan Right to Farm Act is one of, if not the most, powerful farm acts in the country.  If more small farmers don't start standing up for our rights, you are correct, "us small guys" won't be protected.  SCgirl, as far as knowing our elected officials on the local level, that is a great idea.  Because I know ours and know that they selectively enforce their zoning (which is in direct conflict with the MRTFA I might add), we had no choice but to end up in court.  We tried for over 2 years to work with them to make some amendments to the current zoning or even write new pertaining to agriculture at some level in ALL zoned districts.  But, one of them was overheard after a meeting making a statement along the lines of "if we take them to court, they can't afford to fight it".  If local gov't doesn't support and/or encourage local food systems and environmentally sound operations, we have no choice but to utilize the laws that are in place for our protection.  I have done many hundreds of hours of research and work on the protections of the MRTFA and worked with multiple attorneys, MSU extension folks, etc.  It is very clear what the MRTFA protects at this time and we need to keep it that way.


annie.jelinek.5
7/22/2013 8:14:38 AM

The MI RTFA is wonderful but you do have to follow guidelines and be prepared for a fight if you are given a hard time. I have also spoken to the Dept of Ag and it may not have been ment for small farmers but it covers them. I am sick of our rights being taken away. I raise birds and have my own homestead and due to certain issues I have to live in the city for at least a few more years. None of my neighbors have issues with my flock or gardens.


SCgirl
7/22/2013 5:15:57 AM

this doesn't sit well w/ me i'm very secptical about this. If a farm has to be approved and verified by the MAEAP MI Agriculture environmental Assureance program and conform to the "generally accepted agriculture and management practises" set by MDARD-MI dept Ag./Rural Development, this could end up putting a lot of power/control in the hands of unfavorable agencies. We need to stay informed and know our elected officals on a local,county,and state level.

 

 


BornAgainFarmGirl
7/21/2013 10:17:06 PM

This article is giving out incorrect information.... I have spoken to theMI state dept of ag who stated they NEVER ment for the right to farm act to cover people who break zoning laws but that judges and lawyers currently interpret the law as they see fit. I was also informed that the state is rewriting the right to farm act so it does NOT cover people like this or backyard chicken keepers who break zoning laws. Just a little FYI.... These folks were lucky they won, in a years time the law is changing so it will be VERY cut and dry who it covers and it will NOT be us small guys.


RaZ
7/20/2013 11:43:44 PM

MDARD does not really support the Right to Farm Act. At least where small farms are considered.

 


SammyD
7/17/2013 10:46:23 AM

OK Michigan  has a right to farm act BUT they are trying to kill off small Pork producers ??

As Mother Earth newss has reported before--Michigan had passed a law that labled most any pigs besides the hairless ones that the stinking large Corporate farms raise as an invasive species and subject to felony charges for raising them.

Does not sound like I would trust Michigan LawMakers to not sell out to big corporate farms (garbage producers)









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