Owning Pigs a Felony in Michigan? Big Ag-Inspired Law Targets Small Farms

The mangalitsa pig is different than other pigs. For one thing, it's covered in thick wool, like a sheep. It's got upright ears, and a flat tail. The farmers at Michigan's Baker's Green Acres are fond of the pig. The thick fur protects them from harsh Michigan winters, and their status as a 'lard' pig means that customers prize their marbled meat. They grunt, they eat, and they care for their young just like any other domesticated swine. In short, they're just regular pigs -- that happen to have black fur.

To Michigan's Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the black-furred pigs are a threat that must be eliminated. A law passed in 2010, set to go into effect on April 1, 2012, outlaws the mangalitsa, and many other pigs that don't fall within their guidelines:

“Possession of the following live species, including a hybrid or genetic variant of the species, and/or offspring of the species or of a hybrid or genetically engineered variant, is prohibited:

(b) Wild boar, wild hog, wild swine, feral pig, feral hog, feral swine, Old world swine, razorback, eurasian wild boar, Russian wild boar (Sus scrofa Linnaeus). This subsection does not and is not intended to affect sus domestica involved in domestic hog production."

Possession of just one of these animals carries a felony penalty, punishable by up to four years in prison. And the vague language of the law, not clearly outlining which pigs exactly are feral pigs (it hinges on some tricky pig taxonomy), means that determination will be at the discretion of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Farmers' questions have gone unanswered in public forums -- they are encouraged to approach the DNR privately bearing pictures of their pigs for the perusal of DNR agents, who will then determine whether the pigs are 'feral' or not.

Feral to Whom?

Feral, it turns out, probably means anything not raised on an industrial farm. In a February 27 editorial published in the

Manistee Advocate newspaper, Senator Booher mentioned, “The small farmers I have talked to wonder why the DNR is singling out their pigs and is joining forces with the Michigan Pork Producers Association on this issue. They believe the association wants all pigs to be raised in confinement facilities, and the best way to achieve that is to make it illegal to raise certain swine, especially those offering alternatives to the white pork raised in confinement."

The traditional white swine favored by Big Ag doesn't run any risk of falling under the 'feral' classification. They're raised indoors by the thousands, so no need for thick fur. No tails either, since they tend to chew them off when they're all crammed together. The Michigan Pork Producers Association stands behind the act, claiming that the measure is necessary to prevent the damage caused by escaped and feral hogs.

Big Ag Sees a Threat

Small farmers see another motivation: burgeoning consumer awareness of the horrors of industrial farming. The more folks know how disgusting these giant pig farms are, how pigs never see the light of day, how they're fed antibiotics and subsidized corn, the more they're interested in hearing about pork from a different source. About happy furry pigs like the mangalitsa on Baker's Green Acres.

For opponents of the measure, this law and the support of the Michigan Pork Producer's Association is nothing more than a concerted effort to muscle small sustainable farmers out of the marketplace entirely. It's a bold move on the part of Big Ag -- and farmers across the country are waiting to see how it pans out.

This won't be the first time farmers and citizens going up against the entrenched interests of Big Ag face serious consequences. In Los Angeles, vegan store owners have been arrested at gunpoint for selling raw milk. Even the Amish have been targeted, with the FDA stepping in to stop cross-state sale of raw milk in 2012.

Food Sovereignty

The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, based in Arlington, VA, provides an ally for farmers looking to fight back. In their own words, they “protect the rights of farmers and consumers to engage in direct commerce...and protect the rights of farmers to sell the products of the farm and the rights of consumers to access the foods of their choice from the source of their choice."

In addition to providing a wealth of resources, including tips for farmers being raided, the organization also litigates on behalf of small farmer interests. Currently, the FTCLDF is challenging the FDA's ban on raw milk, an issue whose importance is sketched out by the arrests mentioned above.

Now, as implementation of the pig ban looms, the FTCLDF has stepped forward to provide Michigan's farmers with assistance in the face of the new law.

Groups like the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund provide another channel for addressing legitimate food-sovereignty concerns. Based in Pennsylvania, this nonprofit assists communities around the country to draft legislation that allow citizens to decide for themselves how they want to grow and consume their food, breaking free of the grip of legislation written primarily to serve the fiduciary interests of Big Ag.

A ban on furry pigs and raw milk is only one part of the larger mosaic of concerns surrounding food sovereignty. At the core of the issue are questions over the foundations of our democratic processes. Who decides who makes decisions for communities?

Corporations, or the people?

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