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There Goes Michigan’s “Right to Farm.” Or Not.

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Michigan’s been on a roll lately. First they banned wild pigs, setting off a crunchy firestorm that brews to this day. Now they’ve gone and had the nerve to revise the state’s Right to Farm Act (RTFA), closing an oft exploited loophole that leaves urban and suburban homesteaders without a defense with which to tie up their local court systems when they get caught raising contraband chickens, ducks, geese, goats, bees and potbellied pigs — or any other livestock — in residential areas.

In the wake of the change, headlines have come fast, furious and carefully designed to infuriate hipsters, hippies and tin-foil hatters. And I say that as lovingly as possible since I consider myself a member of at least one of those groups, but I digress. The point is, a lot of people are really pissed off about the one half of the story they’ve been getting in the media and I’m tired of hearing about it so I’d like to clear a few things up.

First, as Kerry would say, let’s nutshell this: Michigan’s citizens did not lose their ‘Right to Farm’. Michigan’s Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPs) were revised to better allow local municipalities (cities and towns) to decide how to handle livestock within their borders.

Both small, local government and the RTFA were strengthened with this and I’ll explain how and why, but first we have to go back to the beginning. Historical perspective brings a lot of clarity, after all.

The RTFA was originally enacted in 1981, but it helps if we go back even further to understand cultural implications — specifically relations between rural and urban/suburban (mostly suburban) populations, the two groups between whom the RTFA was designed to mediate.

Most of the time, when people think of the farms of yesteryear, the type so many of us have a tendency to romanticize, we think we’re harkening back to a 1950′s era farm. In reality, by the 1950s farms were already rapidly consolidating and specializing. The farms we picture in our mind’s eye are actually a combination of 1950s prosperity with 1930s farming, which was far less prosperous and glamorous.

In fact, by mid-century, most people were already leaving the country for the city and it was considered a vast improvement on quality of life to leave all of the country-things behind as they migrated. We have to understand that prior to this — during the era of farming we actually picture — the average farm family made far less than the average non-farm family and farmers were, by and large, the very least educated people in society. Our minds have tricked us by layering the era of prosperity over the era of tiny, diversified farms, but trickery is all it is. Being able to go to the grocery store and buy all the food a family could eat was a vast improvement over toiling in hot, dirty conditions and still wondering if you’d be able to feed your family.

At the same time the economy was growing, and being able to do things like go to the store and get a week’s worth of groceries in 30 minutes meant people had a lot more leisure time, too. By the 1970s, with our newly found money and time we were sprawling out. Suburbs grew at astonishing rates and as they did cities began to encroach on farm land. Not only did we worry about the loss of agricultural land for productivity, suburbanites had different ideas about what they wanted in their backyards than did the farmers who had already been there. Remember these people were one generation, sometimes less, away from a very different farming reality; one of a dirty, underpaid and undereducated existence. They wanted no part of going back. So they naturally began to clash with the farmers who remained. Complaints were lodged about general agriculture practices that created everything from noise to smell to dust to tractor-traffic jams.

The RTFA was enacted specifically to address those clashes; it was intended to protect people in the country, namely commercial farmers, from the cities that were sprawling out, encroaching on what was previously agricultural land, and then getting offended at the way in which farmers made their living; which, because of the sprawl was now right next door.

At the time no one really fathomed a reversal in cultural perceptions about farming, just like when the industrial-agricultural revolution took off no one really fathomed the mass migration to cities that ultimately led to the suburban sprawl itself.

Thirty-three years later however, that’s exactly what has happened. We’re far enough removed from the farming era of both the 1930′s and 1950′s that our mind’s eye is allowed to trick us into thinking the practices of the former were concurrent with the prosperity of the latter. Something that couldn’t be any further from the truth, but that without a frame of reference we really like to believe. If for no other reason than it feels good. And, since we’re human, we tend to really want a slice of any kind of feel-good pie.

So now the issue we have is not people from the cities encroaching on and getting offended by what happens in agricultural areas — though make no mistake we still need RTFA for when that does happen — it’s now people who want to bring bits of a romanticized version of the country into the city, much to the chagrin of their neighbors.

And over the past several years a lot of that has been happening, and then, when these people get caught, they claim RTFA as a defense. How? Well, keep in mind, when RTFA was written no one fathomed a bunch of city dwellers wanting to keep chickens in their backyards. Remember: farming was unappreciated then, it wasn’t yet romanticized. The vast majority of people who’d managed to get off the family farms of the previous generation had no interest in going back. So RTFA was written to specifically supersede local ordinances. At the time, this worked. It meant that suburbs couldn’t sprawl out into agricultural areas, enact new ordinances and then enforce them against the farmers who were there first. You can see evidence of this in many tiny towns across Michigan where ordinances were written to “grandfather in” livestock. If you had them at the time the town’s boundaries were extended to include your property you were allowed to keep them, but no new operations were allowed.

As time wore on however, and the era of hobby homesteading was harkened, people started to use the same clause as a defense when they decided to start rearing livestock inside towns and cities where ordinances against them were established long before they so much as thought about bringing a piece of the “farm” home. They even started giving each other advice on how best to ensure they could exploit the loophole should the need ever arise. You see, the RTFA was written with something of a control for this kind of thing; its protections are limited to commercial farming operations. Commercial is a tricky designation however, especially when it comes to farming. Since few farms — even among the biggest and “best” — are consistently profitable, the only safe way to define a “commercial” farming operation has been to include all those who engage in commerce; that is, sell something… anything.

As you can imagine it’s not hard to sell a dozen eggs a month with a few hens or a pint of honey a year with one bee hive. And people could even be found buying/selling/trading among themselves simply for the “protection” they thought it would offer. One problem is that when challenged in court the protection they expected was not always granted.

If anything can be said about the consistency of this type of RTFA case it’s that they were consistently inconsistent, and if taken all the way to court pretty consistently drawn out. Some smaller towns, when confronted with a fight they couldn’t afford, backed down. Others, mostly those that had better means to defend themselves and their citizens who wanted the town’s ordinances enforced, went to court and even won. Which brings us to how local governments and the RTFA are stronger with the new rules in place.

Every time a hobby homesteader went to court with an RTFA case and lost, the RTFA was weakened for when it would really be needed. And it was especially weakened for when it will be really needed by a small farm, the very kind most of the people who are mad about this say they support most. The alternative to allowing local governments to police this issue within their borders is to put a more restrictive definition on “commercial farming operation.” That is, to say that in order to be afforded RTFA protection an operation has to sell a certain quantity of agricultural products, or a certain dollar amount. Something that would surely result in many more small farms, not just hobby homesteads in towns and cities, being exempted from their “right to farm.”

Meanwhile, local governments are better able to serve their citizens without state-level interference. Tax dollars can be spent on enacting policies that work for each town and city at the local level, rather than court battles over whether or not those ordinances fit into a tiny, inadvertent and rather twisted loophole. And yes, sometimes this means if someone lives in a town or city where some or many of the neighbors would rather not have chickens, bees, goats, pigs and their ilk in the next yard, they’ll have to refrain from keeping those things. But even that is in the spirit of the original RTFA, isn’t it? The RTFA protects people in the country from losing their way of life to people who move from the city and try to force their way of doing things on their new neighbors, clarifying the boundaries of RTFA makes sure that those people from the cities are not subjected to an identical, but opposite intrusion.

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