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.
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.