The Right to Farm Act: When a good fence isn't enough.

It’s spring, and farmers across Michigan are planting and preparing their fields. Waking up to the smell of a field covered in fresh manure may not be the most enjoyable way to start the day, but this is just part of what it takes to put bacon and eggs on the breakfast table.

View of a housing development near a farm in Richfield, Minnesota (1954).  Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

View of a housing development near a farm in Richfield, Minnesota (1954). Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

For new neighbors of an existing farm, that smell can seem like a nuisance that offends the nostrils and drives down property values. As suburbs grew in the 1950s and 60s, lawsuits and the onset of zoning laws made it harder for some farmers to do what they'd always been doing.

Michigan created the Right to Farm Act in 1981 as a way to protect farms. In a nutshell, a farm is protected from nuisance lawsuits if the farm is following state standards or, if there are no state standards for a farm’s practices, if the farm was there before whoever wants to file a lawsuit.

The standards that farms need to follow are called Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMPs). If the Department of Agriculture has a GAAMP that covers something done on your farm, you will have to follow it if you want the protections of the Right to Farm Act.

Currently, there are eight GAAMPs for farms, covering manure, farm location, animal care, fertilizers, water use, pesticides, cranberries, and farm markets. These GAAMPs are regularly updated by the state. They're supposed to represent currently acceptable methods used by farms. Because of the ever-changing nature of these GAAMPs, a farmer might lose the protections of the Right to Farm Act while doing things the way they’ve always been done: what was once deemed acceptable may no longer be protected.

A tractor spreading liquid manure on a cornfield. This farm will need to follow ever-changing rules about preventing runoff, reducing odor, and keeping records to maintain protection under the Right to Farm Act. Ravenna, Michigan (2014).  Photo by the author.

A tractor spreading liquid manure on a cornfield. This farm will need to follow ever-changing rules about preventing runoff, reducing odor, and keeping records to maintain protection under the Right to Farm Act. Ravenna, Michigan (2014). Photo by the author.

You may have noticed the Right to Farm Act in the news recently. The reason is that Michigan changed the GAAMP covering the rules for keeping livestock. Backyard chickens are livestock, and anyone wanting the benefits of the Right to Farm Act will have to follow the updated livestock rules. Some farms surrounded by areas experiencing population growth will find that they no longer have protection from lawsuits and zoning changes.

For farms near growing towns, keeping on top of changing accepted practices could make the difference between continuing to operate as a farm or being forced to sell out to a real estate developer.

I urge farmers to know, understand, and comply with current accepted practices and to stay on top of changes to these laws. For those who lack the time to do so or who are confused by the legal mumbo jumbo, seeking legal counsel is essential to protecting and preserving the land.