When I moved to Michigan, one of the things that really excited me was the strong protections that small family farmers had, the emphasis on local food and local culture, and the support at all levels of government for these practices. Unfortunately, a whole series of recent events have shifted Michigan from one of the most progressive states in the nation concerning the right to farm to something…else, a state moving in a direction that is certainly not good for local foods or organic farms.
The trend that seems to be happening, at least in Michigan, is that as the local foods/local farms movement gains ground, as funds are diverted away from industrialized food and into farmer’s markets, and as people work to engage in more sustainable practices in their communities, backlash starts occurring. Backlash may be locally motivated (e.g. irate neighbors); it frequently occurs in a legislative sense, where legislation aimed at protecting people and small businesses gets shifted or replaced with protecting large businesses/corporate interests. I wanted to take some time today to discuss the recent occurrences with Michigan’s Right to Farm Act and respond to what has recently happened with this act.
I want to start with the name of the act–the “Right to Farm.” The name of the act is fitting, and starts with the premise that people should have the right to do things like grow their own food, slaughter their own animals, and generally be left to themselves (and one interpretation of the US constitution’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” suggests just that). Our US constitution had no such “right to farm” because nearly everyone farmed, hunted, fished, gathered, and preserved their own food (again, I’ll refer to historical texts for this, like Jefferson’s wholehearted dedication to farming research, despite his continual failures). Before the advent of the modern grocery store (a 1950’s invention) nearly everyone had a garden and grew at least some produce, many also kept livestock.
There is good reason to consider returning towards that model, especially in a destabilizing climate, an industrial agricultural system producing mostly toxic foods, and the uncertainty of dwindling oil resources. By producing lots more of our own food and localizing our food systems, we will be more resilient and sustainable. But we also empower ourselves to take care of ourselves, rather than trying to look to others, especially corporations, to care for us. By growing our own food, we reconnect with the land, her seasons, and her cycles.
And there is good reason for doing so. To give you a sense of the destabilizations in our food supply, we can look at the drought that is happening in California–it is already substantially affecting prices and the availability of many foods throughout the US (almonds, lettuce, citrus, and so on). Furthermore, industrial agriculture, which rose around the same time the modern grocery store was invited, is not working and has never really worked; the UN just released a report that provided evidence that industrialized agriculture cannot feed the world. It is also extremely harmful to our ecosystems. And, as we have been learning the hard way with recall after recall, with stories of pink slime and salmonella, industrial agriculture does not produce food that is wholesome, ethical, or safe. Monocropping requires pesticides that are linked to health deficiencies, pollinator die offs, and the destruction of our soil ecology. I could continue on here, but I think you get my meaning.
So now we turn to Michigan’s law, the Right to Farm act. Originally approved in 1981, for thirty three years, this law once protected small family farms and small homesteaders (like myself) from local legislation meant to shut down farming activities. It said that farming was a right, and no one could take that right away. This act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the nation concerning farming (and often cited as a model policy for others to follow), helped us build a local food system by protecting farmers and their investments. There were cases where backyard or urban homesteading was producing food and livelihood for farmers but neighbors were upset because it didn’t look like a typical lawn. In another case, a subdivision went up around an older family farm and then the subdivision got feisty and wanted the farm torn down (Mother Earth News describes one such case). This law, over a 30+ year period, helped create Michigan’s incredibly diverse local food scene; in South-East Michigan alone, we have literally hundreds of farmer’s markets, thousands of small startup food-related businesses, and a growing appreciation and commitment to local foods on the part of consumers (having lived in other states, I can tell you that nowhere I have lived prior to here had any emphasis on local food!)
And then, this year, the Michigan Department of Agriculture decided that these farming activities only applied to farms whose farming activities were more than 250′ away from a neighbor–in other words, rural farms. To put this in perspective–I live on three acres in an area that is on the border between suburbia and a rural setting (I would like to live further out, but that would require an even longer work commute). My land is deep, not wide. There is nowhere on my 3 acres where I could put farming activities that would be protected under Michigan’s new “Right to Farm” act. The act has been re-interpreted now to only give protections to large-scale agriculture or agriculture that is very rural. Gone are protections for any urban farms (like those springing up all over Detroit); gone are protections for small farms that were there long before the suburbs grew up around them. Gone are the protections for anyone who seeks to farm on a smaller piece of land because that’s all they can afford or that’s where they are currently living. Now that the protections have been removed, farmers, especially urban farmers, are being challenged. And yet, everything is moving in the other direction, especially the revitalization of the core of Detroit using urban farming. New developments since I posted this include the seizing by force of goats and chickens from an urban homesteader’s property and a couple being arrested for having chickens on their property. What is this insanity?
Now it could be that a reasonable local government would protect residents rights to farms (and we are seeing chicken ordinances, for example, enacted all over the country) but it also might be that a less reasonable local government would have poor laws that took rights away. It also can be that a reasonable government quickly gives way to less reasonable government, especially if a few powerful citizens pull the right strings because they are irritated that a neighbor starts keeping goats. The state-wide protections on local farms, meant that you could count on the right to have your farm protected, regardless of how large it was and regardless of what happened at a local level or with the neighbors. And, as my battles with the township over lawn ordinances have suggested, people get really wonky and weird about things that don’t look perfect, like wild and beautiful native plant front yards and the like. People don’t like hearing the glorious sound of a rooster crowing up the sun or see hoop houses erected in their neighbor’s back yards (I happen to like both of these things!)
The problem with this new interpretation of the Right to Farm Act is that it assumes an industrialized food model: and that assumption is that only farmers far from the cities and suburbs should be growing any food, raising any livestock, or keeping bees. Its concerning because not everyone can be full time farmers, living far away from the city….many have other careers that are worth doing, and can’t live so far out that they can own 40 acres to farm. The other issue is that the further away your farm is from those who might be buying your products, the more fossil-fuel dependent these systems are. And I’d like to see us develop systems that are much less dependent on fossil fuels–or fossil fuel free. I’ve met multiple farmers attending farmer’s markets in the heart of Detroit’s Eastern Market who come to market with a cart pulled by a bicycle! Now that’s a fossil-free way to move produce!
I should also mention that the loss of the Right to Farm hasn’t been the only pushback on the local food scene. Two other incidents are worth mentioning. The first is High Hill Dairy’s experiences with their milkshare program. Michigan is what is called a “herdshare” state; it allows people to buy into a herd, essentially owning part of it, and the farmers who keep the herd then provide raw milk and other dairy products (butter, ice cream) to the herdshare holders. Regardless of your stance on raw milk (I like getting it to make cheese), what happened was just wrong. The Michigan Department of Agriculture forced High Hill Dairy to dump almost $5000 worth of goods…into dumpsters. In a second example, a few years ago, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources claimed that many heritage breeds of pigs that farmers had crossbred (the kinds that can survive the cold Michigan winters) were invasive species, and ordered farmers to slaughter their herds. The Bakers Green Acres farm and several other farms decided to fight back, and underwent a very long and difficult battle to keep their pigs. Other farmers capitulated and literally had to shoot all of their livestock.
I really do believe that laws like the Right to Farm Act are critically important and necessary not only for protection for small family farms and homesteaders, but to create a more resilient, sustainable food system. In other words, these laws benefit all of us, whether or not we choose to make a living at farming or choose to erect hoop houses in our backyards. Because we face increasingly challenging times, dwindling fossil fuel resources, I believe we need to put local agriculture back into our landscapes in every setting, not just the rural settings. We might look to Cuba’s example, when Cuba faced their own oil crisis, and responded with brilliant Cuban gardens and a revitalization of their local agriculture for the sake of survival. I’d like to see us continue to revitalize our local food systems now, before we face an oil crisis on the scale that Cuba experienced.
Growing one’s own food and protecting that right is woven into the history of this nation and it is our heritage. This country was founded on the backs of farmers and small homesteads–and I believe those roots should be honored. If long term sustainability is our goal, I believe we need to serious step back, recognize the challenges inherent in our lawns and landscapes, and allow our perceptions and actions to shift. We need to fight to protect the integrity of laws like the Michigan Right to Farm act and support farmers, homsteaders, and urban farmers as they do the tireless work of producing better food and a more friendly food system for all of us.