‘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.

| August/September 2013

  • Home Farm Sign
    The Michigan Right to Farm act is a template for the defense and encouragement of local food production and the restoration of agriculture to its rightful place — integrated into communities.
    Photo By iStockPhoto/DavidBukach
  • Shady Grove
    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

  • Home Farm Sign
  • Shady Grove

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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