Environment

Bizarre — Why Is Michigan Govt. Trying to Derail Detroit-Area's Urban Farming Movement?

New rules imposed on residential farms threaten the state's agricultural renaissance.

Photo Credit: Tony Campbell / Shutterstock

Michiganders who raise chickens, goats and ​honey ​bees on their residential property have had their right to keep livestock stripped away by the state’s Agriculture and Rural Development Commission, which says they are not protected by the same laws as commercial farms. Urban parts of Michigan, particularly Detroit, have been enjoying a renaissance of small-scale farming in recent years. Much of it has been in the form of community farms, residents providing food for themselves, and small entrepreneurs who sell fresh eggs, dairy, honey, and produce to their neighbors, sometimes off the books.

Commission Chair Diane Hanson said that the state’s previous agricultural management rules “were not suitable for livestock in urban and suburban areas.” Now, properties not zoned for agricultural use with 13 or more residences within an eighth of a mile or another residence within 250 feet may be required to cease keeping livestock if asked by local authorities.

Many urban and suburban farmers had assumed that the state’s Right to Farm Act, made law in 1981, extended to those who raise livestock in residential areas and allowed ​them to have livestock without being considered a nuisance, as long as the rules of the Act were followed. The law was originally written to protect farmers from residential encroachment impacting their agricultural operations.​​

This ruling not only has backyard farmers upset, it has been met with opposition from environmental groups. Thestate’s chapter of the Sierra Club says that the new changes will effectively remove all protections for those raising animals on urban lots or on small acreages.

The new guidelines from the state come only a few months after a Michigan Circuit Court ruled that a Williamstown Township family could not operate a farm on their 1.5 acre property. Jeremiah and Jessica Hudson started Sweet Peas Farm at their home, near the state capital of Lansing, to ensure their five children were getting a proper diet. The Hudsons claim their kids suffer from numerous food allergies and that they had difficulty finding non-allergenic eggs and milk, which impairs their children's ability to eat a balanced diet.

On their property, which sits among six residences distributed over 70 acres of land, the Hudsons had raised pigs, goats, chickens and rabbits, which the township said was a zoning violation. The Hudsons argued that they had a legal right to raise livestock and were protected under the Right to Farm Act because they planned on selling food that they produced there and that commercial farms were protected from local nuisance ordinances. However, the Township Supervisor Mickey Martin contended that the animals were kept in a residential zone where farm animals are forbidden, and that legal protections provided under state law did not trump local zoning ordinances.

The Hudsons, whose legal fees have been paid for in part by Internet donations, have filed a petition to have their case heard by Michigan’s Court of Appeals.

Burgeoning Movement is Threatened

Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, has been the driving force behind the urban-farming boom in the state. The city, which has been suffering from blight and decay for many years, has seen more than a third of its residential homes abandoned, burned down, or gutted by scavengers over the past few decades. 

However, among the city’s ruins are some 30,000 acres of rich soil, which are fed by water and roadway infrastructures plenty robust for proper irrigation and food distribution. Now, within the city’s limits, you’ll find everything from modest bungalows with attached hen houses, to fields owned by anti-hunger charities, to educational and community farms. A 300-acre woodlands is being planted on Detroit's East Side. There are plans for the city to host large commercial farming enterprises jumping on the organic, regional and other niche food bandwagons. 

While urban farms can't compete with rural farms in terms of price per acre, they can compete through product differention and value. Entreprenuers in the Detroit metropolitan area have touted small farms that specialize in hard-to-get ethnic foods and pharmaceutical-grade herbs. 

What effect this law will have on urban farming within Detroit's city limits is not known. While there are many advocates for animal husbandry within the city, owning and raising farm animals is illegal within its limits. Still, it's not uncommon to see chicken coops or animal pens in the yards of homes. The city has so many real problems these days that it probably looks the other way. Moreover, Detroit's government is contemplating the employment of goats and sheep to graze on the overgrown turf in the city's numerous empty lots. Allowing this, however, would require changes to the city's urban agriculture ordinance.

In the suburbs, also suffering from the state’s drawn-out recession, and in many areas elsewhere in the state, this entrepreneurial movement is also starting to take hold. Roadside stands with locally grown food are sprouting along the metropolitan area’s “mile roads” and boulevards. People sell organic eggs over Craigslist, sometimes delivering them right to the buyer's door.

“The Michigan Agriculture Commission passed up an opportunity to support one of the hottest trends in food in Michigan — public demand for access to more local, healthy, sustainable food,” said Gail Philbin, the assistant director of the state’s Sierra Club. “The commission is essentially taking sides in the marketplace.”

In response to the commission's ruling, the Michigan Small Farm Council has taken action. The organization is asking concerned residents to contact the commissioners directly to express to express their discontent. They have also been pushing a grassroots MoveOn.org petition that is asking the commission to reconsider. As of this writing, it has 36,000 signatures. The petition was originally authored by a concerned individual, George John Thompson. "Protect our individual rights to provide our own food and make small farmers a priority in Michigan," the petition demands.

Public outrage has caused the Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development to defend its ruling to the public. The commission contends that the Right to Farm Act only applies to commercial farming, and not an individual's or family’s right to provide his or her own food. Therefore, state law never gave individuals the right to keep livestock on their property to begin with. The commission also pointed out that the changes do not apply in areas already zoned for agriculture.

Commissioner Dru Montri, a small farmer from Bath Township, was the lone dissenting voice out of five commissioners. Montri, who states that she’s committed to a regional food system on the commission’s website, contends that she doesn’t “fully understand the potential impacts these changes are going to hav​​e on small-scale commercial farmers in densely populated areas. I had several concerns and questions, not just one sticking point, that I raised during the Commission meetings."​

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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