Food for Thought: Goodbye Right to Farm in Michigan

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“Cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens.”

~Thomas Jefferson, from Notes on the State of Virginia

 

Yesterday, my brother sent me a text:

“Food for thought: 3 of the top 5 and 7 of the top 12 shareholders of Monsanto are also top shareholders in Facebook…feel torn?”

I replied, thanks for ruining my day. My brother is currently on a search for “clean everything,” (usually my purview) and “mainly truth,” which is just plain heartbreaking considering the news I heard yesterday here in Michigan.

The Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development recently ruled that local governments can now arbitrarily ban even small livestock (like chickens and goats) if there is a residence within 250 feet of the property where the livestock resides.  This ruling basically repeals the Michigan’s Right to Farm Act which has, since 1981, protected small farmers from the whims of city folk who move to the country and then want to gentrify it. Michigan is supposedly a farmer-friendly state. In fact, US Senator Debbie Stabenow (a Democrat) recently shepherded through a Farm Bill that is a great step forward in prioritizing organic farming and local farm economies for the whole country. Michigan has even helped food stamp recipients (who often don’t have access to even grocery stores that stock healthy food) buy fresh, local produce at farm markets, a program that is helping folks down on their luck and local small farmers.

So what happened? My fellow country bumpkins are already making comments on social media sites about Big Brother taking their freedoms. But the loss of Right to Farm protection is not about Big Brother. It’s about Big Ag. (If you don’t know what “Big Ag” means, check out this article at farmaid.org) Big corporate farms and companies like Monsanto (purveyor of patented, Franken-like life forms, Round-Up, and Agent Orange) want to squash the burgeoning organic food market (which seriously outpaced conventional food sales growth over the last few years). The hottest “new” trend in the food biz is the eat local movement. Small farmers, sometimes on just a couple of acres, are raising healthy poultry, eggs, dairy goats, and clean, open-pollinated heirloom vegetables, just like farmers and homesteaders and most everybody’s grandma used to, before the perversion of farm subsidies designed to do one thing—make rich guys richer. This, after the World Health Organization warns that antibiotic overuse on factory farms is a major (and possibly deadly) concern–one that can be addressed by returning to small farm ways that treat animals humanely.

What this Michigan ruling really means is that small farmers—whether they have three chickens in their city backyard, or a big flock on 100 acres—no longer are protected from arbitrary livestock bans by township or city councils. Many urban and suburban hen keepers are immediately affected by zoning laws already in place. A single mom who keeps three or four hens in her backyard might not be feeding the neighborhood, but she probably is feeding her kids healthy, organic, free-range eggs she can’t afford at the grocery store. Free-range eggs have dark orange yolks full of good omega-3s and beta-carotene, even if “free-range” means being moved to a fresh patch of grass or garden each day in a portable chicken tractor.

I started raising chickens because I have children with developmental disabilities, food intolerances, and eating problems. I milked goats for the same health, environmental, independence, and animal welfare reasons. I needed access to meatless protein and good fats that I could adapt easily and afford on a single mom’s budget. Even before I got my daughter to eat a plain omelet, I used those healthy eggs from our happy hens in gluten-free pancakes I made from scratch, homemade bread, and even gluten-free pizza crust. My boys had fried egg sandwiches everyday during the summer, and my youngest daughter and I dunked fresh bread into over-easy, sunset colored yolks that tasted better than any anemic, white-shelled, pale yellow-yolked store bought egg ever could.

When we lost the farm and had to move in town temporarily, Michigan’s Right to Farm didn’t help, because I was renting and the landlord forbade livestock of any kind. But I was glad to know backyard chickens were gaining in popularity and legal standing all over the country. We are now in the country again, on 100 acres, in fact. But without Right to Farm protection, I could lose the right to raise the eggs on which I depend to get clean protein and brain-boosting fats into my autistic daughter’s stressed body. According to the new rule, if someone has a residence within 250 feet of the farm property, the township could ban me from having even one chicken. That means, for many small farmers in rural Michigan, that neighbor who bought a half-acre and put up a modular home could be the catalyst for some township board to destroy our way of life, and negate our access to clean food for our children.

This is not hyperbole. Try finding (and affording) free-range, organic eggs at a small town grocery in the Midwest. When I had a full flock, I was using six to twelve eggs per day to feed my family of five. If I drive 25 miles, I can get a dozen free-range eggs for $4.29, on average. That comes to about $130 a month, just for eggs. I can’t afford that. When I raise my own happy hens (and the roosters who come with them), I get not only eggs that we eat and sell, but pastured poultry for the freezer ($14.95 a bird, retail), chemical free fertilizer for my garden ($0.22-$2.50 per square foot of garden space-each time it is applied), and the satisfaction of teaching my children responsibility and empathy through caring for animals (priceless).

It is extremely unlikely that the township in which I currently reside will outlaw my livestock. But I don’t own this property, and I may not always live in Amish country, where people value independent living and small farms.

Aside from the immediate and sad consequences for urban, suburban, and some rural farmers, this new rule is just plain boneheaded for Michigan’s economy. Organic and local grown food trends are economic trends Michigan could have tapped into and boosted, rather than hog-tied, so many of the state’s rural and small town local economies. (Check out what Traverse City has done with locally grown food.) For a state ranking at the bottom of the nation in economic recovery, Michigan isn’t doing itself any favors with another bad decision that will economically hurt its struggling citizens.

Small farmers are politically conservative in these parts. I hope they realize, come November, who is chipping away at their independence and financial well-being. It is not blue Big Brother. It is a bloody red state bending to the will of Big Ag and big private money, making sure corporate factory farms and giant companies like Monsanto crush their little guy competition.

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