Elaine Thompson / AP

The demise of urban farming has been greatly exaggerated

Paranoia about Michigan law, though misguided, is heartening

May 20, 2014 1:30AM ET

When the news came out in late April that Michigan’s Right to Farm Act, passed in 1981, had been revised to subject both small and tiny farm livestock operations to local zoning rules, it hit like a lit match. Fevered articles on news and advocacy sites — both progressive and conservative and heavily shared on social media — painted a grim picture about how the rule change foretold the end of small farms in cities and suburbs. Did you know that Americans are being “stripped” of their right to farm and that “the crushing state of Michigan” is criminalizing citizens who want to cultivate chickens, honeybees and other creatures in their backyards?

Alarmed by the news, activists went to work. A beekeeper swiftly collected 40,000 signatures on an online petition asking the agency to reverse the rule change. The assistant director of the Michigan Sierra Club told MLive, a news site, that she believed the change would “effectively remove Right to Farm Act protection for many urban and suburban backyard farmers raising small numbers of animals.” As a result of the pressure, the Michigan Senate Agriculture Committee has agreed to a new hearing where these opinions can be voiced.

But all this opinionating is misguided: It confuses urban farmers (and their neighbors), while undercutting the credibility of those of us who are searching for sustainable ways to live and eat. First of all, the Michigan state agency criminalized nothing. The policy change by the state’s Department of Agriculture only modified its generally approved agricultural practices regarding where livestock facilities may be located. (You can read the full revised site-selection policy here.) In acknowledgment of the rise of urban farming, the rule change added a new category of locations for farms with animals: suburbs, cities and other primarily residential communities. The agency simply advises local municipalities to decide for themselves how farming should work in their communities; nothing is immediately outlawed. The agency says, specifically, that this move is meant to  “clarify those situations when decisions regarding the keeping of farm animals in primarily residential areas should be made by local communities.” 

With clarification from the state that backyard farming is a local power, more affirmative policies are likely to be in the works.

This is a completely reasonable policy. Urban farming laws have always been handled at the local level, which is not only appropriate but also good for farmers. Say a couple of prospective urban farmers are frustrated with their city for banning goat- or beekeeping. They have a much better chance of influencing that policy for the better if it is a local ordinance rather than a statewide law or statute. City Hall is the right place for decisions to take place on where and how to farm. As the Department of Agriculture put in its FAQ page about the rule change, it

"supports the expansion of agriculture, whether for personal consumption or for local sale/distribution, as it provides an opportunity for people to be closer to local food sources … [But the department] has consistently said the expansion of agriculture into urban and suburban settings must be done in a way that makes sense for all community residents, as well as the overall care of farm animals and livestock.

Who decides what animal policies make sense? The communities themselves, according to our new rules. As it happens, more than 40 Michigan municipalities, including Detroit, already have policies that support the keeping of backyard poultry, and many townships allow for the same. With clarification from the state that backyard farming is a local power, more affirmative policies are likely to be in the works.

Broad protections

Activists and media coverage suggest that this rule change deprives small urban farmers of state protection while opening the door for local municipalities to ban their goats and chickens. But Michigan’s Right to Farm Act never gave residents such broad protections for keeping animals. It was meant to protect rural farmers from being subject to the whims of city slickers — ex-urbanites who moved to the country only to find themselves subject to the smells and sounds of a working farm down the road. Right to Farm made it so that the increasing population of city folks could not vote away the farming rights of their neighbors by changing zoning regulations. Nor could they subject the farmers to unyielding nuisance lawsuits.

The Right to Farm Act (which you can read yourself right here) called for a set of generally accepted agricultural practices that, if voluntarily adopted by a farmer, would provide them with an affirmative defense of their right to farm if they ever faced a public or private nuisance lawsuit. The Right to Farm Act also applies only to the commercial production of farming products: people raising food for their own consumption were never protected by the policy — and the practices, as a voluntary set of standards, are not enforced by the state. That means that people eating their own chickens are in no way oppressed by the rule change. Also exempt? Bees. Despite much misreporting, bees are not considered livestock and are not affected by either the Right to Farm Act or the rule change.

What’s more, Michigan’s Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development didn’t make this rule change on a whim: It had public hearings before coming to the decision. Chaired by a livestock expert from Michigan State University, a committee met for more than two years to examine livestock farming in urban and suburban communities. The committee made recommendations to the full state commission, which hosted a 16-day public comment period as well as public meetings. Even the dissenting Sierra Club assistant director acknowledged, according to MLive, that the commission listened “thoughtfully to dozens of people who commented in opposition of the changes.” According to the Right to Farm FAQ, “the commission took nearly three hours of testimony over the course of three meetings before making a decision.” Public comments are also welcomed at every meeting of the commission.

The fierce backlash to the misconceptions about the rule change is heartening, in a way. It reveals that there are so many allies out there for the urban agriculture movement and that they are willing to speak up about policies that affect our ability to build sustainable lives for our communities and ourselves.

But it is embarrassing when we get so much so wrong. So let’s all take a deep breath. In a state that is second only to California for agricultural diversity, where 95 percent of farms are family-run, urban farmers in Michigan are just fine. Citizen activists here and beyond would do well to ask questions and check facts before turning on the outrage.

Anna Clark’s writing has appeared in The New Republic, Politico, Next City and other publicatifons.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter