Michigan’s Right to Farm Act was originally intended to protect farmers when urban neighbors moved in next door and decided they didn’t like the sights, smells, sounds, etc. related to the farm, provided they were following a specific set of management standards.
Judging by the Facebook posts, tweets and messages I’ve received in the past few days, you’ve already heard the news and read the headlines…
“Michigan Loses Its ‘Right to Farm'”
“Say Goodbye to Backyard Chickens & Beekeepers”
“Michigan Bans Animals on Small Farms”
These headlines ruffled a lot of feathers (pun intended, with apologies, but I couldn’t resist), which was exactly what they were intended to do. Alarm, enrage, vilify. There’s only one glaring problem…
THEY’RE NOT ACCURATE.
Recent changes to Michigan’s Generally Accepted Agriculture Management Practices (GAAMPs) do not mean that anyone is going to “lose” their “right” to farm or protection under Michigan’s Right to Farm Act. It means that every farmer, regardless of the size of their operations, will have to comply with the Site Selection GAAMP if they expect Right to Farm protection.
But before I get to far in that, it’s important to understand the Right to Farm Act and the Site Selection GAAMP specifically.
Developed in 1981, Right to Farm was originally intended to protect traditional rural farmers from nuisance lawsuits from rural newcomers who decided they didn’t like the sights, smells, sounds, etc. of commercial agriculture. Farmers wanting Right to Farm protection are required to comply with all GAAMPs applicable to their operation. The new Site Selection GAAMP has not changed this.
The original Site Selection GAAMP was developed in 2000, when urban agriculture was in its infancy. Like the other components of Michigan’s Right to Farm law, it was written to protect commercial farm operations in a predominantly rural environment, and applied only to new and expanding livestock farms of 50 or more animal units (note that an animal “unit” does not necessarily mean one animal specifically; it is a generalized unit of measure taking livestock size into consideration). It also provided protection to local property owners who might question, for example, building a large livestock facility next to a shopping mall. Provisions including property setbacks and specific housing densities have always been considered when siting animal housing. No new animal facility can be located within 250 feet of its neighbor, nor can it be within 1/8 mile of any area containing 13 houses or more IF the farmer expects protection under the Right to Farm Act. Again, this is voluntary. A farmer can, for example, build a new livestock barn closer than the setback provisions, but in doing so will knowingly forfeit Right to Farm protection.
Zoning compliance is not new to the siting GAAMP. Since its inception, new and expanding livestock farms of 50 or more animal units have been required to comply with local zoning. With the growing popularity of urban agriculture, such farms sometimes claim preemption of local zoning under Right to Farm (due to the nature of their size, by falling under the 50 animal unit threshold). The updated GAAMP merely expands that zoning compliance expectation to new and expanding livestock farms of less than 50 animal units in residentially zoned areas.
This also brings us to an integral part of the new siting GAAMP. It applies to residentially zoned areas ONLY. It DOES NOT BAN owning livestock in these areas; rather, it allows local municipalities to define their OWN guidelines for permissible livestock varieties, quantities and care.
Trever Meachum, vice-chair of the Michigan Commission for Agriculture and Rural Development, the entity responsible for establishing the guidelines within GAAMPs, said in the Michigan Farm News: “Local control is about being a good neighbor, and these GAAMPs–if farmers follow them–help people remain good neighbors. Different communities have different ideas about what they want, and this accommodates those communities.” He went on to explain that “Some people wanted to ignore their local ordinances and still get Right to Farm protection. There has been a lot of misinformation out there from the start, and the commission was just trying to provide some clarification to all communities.”
Currently, urban agriculture does not have a set of GAAMPs tailored specifically for their needs. The Michigan Ag Commission considering drafting a new set of guidelines geared toward urban agriculture. Many, include Michigan Farm Bureau, support this idea and are encouraging the development of these guidelines in order to help foster this important and growing sector of agriculture. (You can read Michigan Farm Bureau’s statement in its entirety here.)
It’s important to remember that the Site Selection GAAMP applies to livestock only. It does not stop anyone from growing or selling their own fruits and vegetables, nor does it override or disallow local ordinances for animals. Also, GAAMPs are not law, and no farm of any size or nature is required to follow them UNLESS they want protection under Right to Farm. The new siting GAAMP simply closes the gap between farms over 50 animal units and those under 50 so that everyone has to abide by the same rules if they expect Right to Farm protection.
To read the entire Site Selection GAAMP, click here.
FAQ’s about Michigan’s Right to Farm act can be viewed here.