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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.

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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 senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. He is a former deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers and on Facebook.

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