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 to 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 a 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 was 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 milk share program. Michigan is what is called a “herd share” 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 herd share 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 the 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, and 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 seriously 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, homesteaders, and urban farmers as they do the tireless work of producing better food and a more friendly food system for all of us.
Adding to the interconnectivity of all things, consider the secondary costs of the local supermarket that we all pay for whether we use it or not. Roads, parking lots and related infrastructure, not to mention car ownership, fuel, insurance, etc. are seldom figured into the so called “convenience” of buying at the national chain store that also took advantage of all that infrastructure to get products from across the country or across the world. We all pay for this even when not directly reflected in the price of an apple that may have travelled thousands of miles. Small, Gritty and Green by Catherine Tumber touches on much of this and addresses both Michigan agriculture and Detroit’s urban farming. http://www.strongtowns.org consistently addresses the Ponzi scheme of development as envisioned by most municipalities where more roads, more parking lots and more big box stores are not a financially stable system as the construction, repair and maintenance costs are never fully recovered and simply present a greater and greater debt for the next generation. As that debt continues to grow, laws like right to farm are gutted to give that infrastructure and buy a few more years of false prosperity at the expense of a system that has survived for centuries and has extremely low overhead and secondary costs.
Yes, excellent points, Cory. Thank you for posting! The hidden costs of processing and packaging, much of which are invisible, are another thing to consider with industrial agriculture, and one not represented in thinking about food miles. So how much energy and waste does it take not only to process the food but also to ship it, to store it, to get it into the hands of the consumer? I don’t know if anyone has ways of accurately calculating this–food miles is a good start, of course.
To add to your comments on infrastructure, the corporate tax loopholes ensure that corporations aren’t paying their fair share for roads and infrastructure because they are avoiding paying taxes almost entirely. This leaves the citizenry paying for the infrastructure of the big box stores (like, say, the horrific mess on Sashibaw road).
Want to thank you for such a well written article that hits all the points which are community related, ecological, environmetal, social economic, health, and political . Since our corporate food chains took over after WWll, we have paid for convenience that is destroying the fabic of our social stucture. We are reaching critical mass in this “Right To Farm Act.” where citizens of Michigan and the United States have to be educated and not sit by the sidelines and wait for change. Will be on the front lines creating change. Change takes place when when the benefits out weigh the risk
Thank you, Linda for your insightful comments. I think you are right about convenience being destructive to our social structure, to who we are as communities and as human beings.
Good post! This is happening in many areas across the country. It is something that everyone should be aware of. “They”, the powers that be don’t want people to be able to grow their own food. It’s Okay to grow pot anywhere though, in Colorado that is.
There is a belief in some circles, (check UN agenda 21) that yours and others way of life is not sustainable. Some think this just crazy conspiracy theory but you can find written, officially. Just do the search, or ask someone living in Europe. Good Luck!
I’ll have to check into UN Agenda 21. I did link to a UN report that suggested that small sustainable farms were the only way to feed the world. But the UN is a big body, so its possible that the right doesn’t know what the left is saying. Regardless, thanks for the thoughts!
Great post! Right to Farm acts are so tricky to decider. There are changes happening all over the country with similar legislation. We need more voices like yours showing how the legislation actually helps or hurts the people who are in the “trenches” so to speak.
My parents have farmed in many different areas. The longer they farm the more they see rural land gobbled up by development or those looking to build McMansions in the middle of country without realizing the views come with the smells and actions of farming. It’s important that we create legislation that can help protect farmland and facilitate harmonious living between rural and urban people. The way to do that, though is not in ridiculous requirements like keeping it 250′ from a neighbor. That’s a lot of productive space to waste!
Excellent point–I had forgot to mention the problem of suburban sprawl. I guess I indirectly mentioned it with regards to some of the farms here where suburban sprawl went up around them…but that’s the serious challenge. Even if you were originally 250′ from a neighbor, would you be in 10 or 20 years? That’s what’s concerning to me.
There was a similar development in Europe. With all the displaced persons and refugees after the world war, governments were actually happy to see them tending to their own needs, which largely meant gardening or farming as that was what many knew to do anyhow and food was scarce in the years following WWII. Then people got wealthier, (agricultural) industry more potent and all of a sudden the leisure class saw no problem with irrigating large swaths of land for a golf course probably drenched in herbicides but did not want to see their neighbor with the “funny accent” stooping over her cabbage at seventy years of age. And ordinances and by-laws began to be invented. Re-zoning was a powerful tool and it looked very inconspicuous, yet it never seemed to harm a golf course, yet many small “farms”. Strange coincidences of course. What strikes me as odd though is that a “right to farm” had to be enacted in the first place. It would be far better to come to an interpretation of the constitution that said you could do whatever you wished with your land as long as it did not harm your neighbors (cement it, asphalt it or plant it with whatever). I think this “right to farm” was already a step into the direction of granting a right that should have been there even without, like the right to breathe …
Oona, thank you for sharing what is happening in Europe. I think we saw a similar thing here too…although in the US, the idea of the “victory garden” during WWII was prevalent. But after that ended, the powers that be wanted to shift us to a consumerist society, so there is no need to grow one’s own food. It seems like a human right to me, however.