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Decision on backyard livestock coming soon

A final decision on backyard farms is expected next month.

The Michigan Commission on Agriculture and Rural Development is about to hold its final hearing on a controversial new rule. It would end Right to Farm protections for people who raise chickens and other livestock in residential areas.

The 1981 Right to Farm Act is the state’s effort to preempt nuisance lawsuits filed against farmers as more people moved from cities and suburbs to rural areas. It grants farmers immunity if they follow what are called Generally Accepted Agricultural Practices.

But over the years, many people in residential areas have claimed Right to Farm protections for raising chickens, goats and other livestock in their yards.

Jim Johnson of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development says the new rule would not outlaw backyard livestock. It would leave it up to local zoning boards to decide.

“We’re not telling you that you can’t have livestock in an urban setting,” he said. “We’re simply saying that that needs to be a local decision.”

Johnson says he’s afraid that, without a rule change, there could be a push for a re-write of the Right to Farm law that would hurt the industrial and rural family farms it was originally designed to shield from lawsuits.

But Wendy Lockwood Banka of the Michigan Small Farm Council says she and other backyard livestock farmers are just as deserving of Right to Farm protections. She says changing a rule doesn’t change the law.

“We think that we’re still going to go to court and we’re still going to win Right to Farm cases,” she said. But without Right to Farm protections, she said, many backyard farmers would be out of business.

“We’ve seen many, many folks go to their townships, go to their cities to try to win the right to keep backyard chickens and the answer is ‘no.’ And so, the only recourse is to use Right to Farm, and that protects everybody, so it’s allowed many, many people to try this, to show that it works, to show that nobody is hurt by it.”

A final decision on the rule change is expected next month. 

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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