Apr 6, 2009
The Right to Farm Right

Back in the 1970s, after 20 years of urban sprawl born from a new interstate highway system, people started thinking farmers were somewhat of a nuisance, with their dust and noise and odors and such.

Forgetting who was there first, they sued to make farmers stop that.

Seeking protection, farmers took to their legislatures to secure their “right to farm.” Michigan passed its Right to Farm Law in 1981, and it worked pretty well – for a few years.

By the middle ’80s, EPA had located and plugged most point sources of pollution and started to look closer at farms and “non-point” sources of pollution. From that was born the idea that your right to farm was subject to some limits. Michigan then wrote its first GAAMPs provisions – Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices. It said the state would defend farmers’ right to farm if they farmed in acceptable ways.

Just because a farming practice is “generally accepted” doesn’t mean it’s good, and the EPA continued its pressure on farmers. Today, if a farmer trespasses on his neighbor by letting polluted water leave his premises, chances are EPA will be on him about it – and so will the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Water is a touchy issue in Michigan, but a ruckus can also be aroused anytime anything drifts across property lines. That can be odors, noises, dust or pesticide sprays. Organic farmers don’t even want pollen to cross property lines.

In a nutshell, the right to farm is being modified to the right to farm right.

And surprisingly, perhaps, the big assault isn’t happening as a result of pollution issues. It’s food safety issues.

When it comes to food safety, your right to grow stuff isn’t being challenged. But your right, and your ability, to sell that stuff is.

Generally accepted practices are definitely not good enough. Good Agricultural Practices are what you need, and you need to have some reputable third party attest that you do, in fact, know what they are and use them. You need an auditor. That’s the new name for an inspector.

While farmers were somewhat successful in fighting back against EPA, the new opponents are winning hands down. EPA never got the right to enter your farm and inspect it. Mostly, EPA waited at the fence line, looking for evidence of trespass.

It doesn’t help to have the right to grow things if you don’t have the right to sell what you grow. And, since customers are always right and can accept or reject anything for any reason, their refusal to buy is totally crippling.

Food safety has become a driving issue, and it will probably change the way produce farmers do business faster and more completely than any outside force ever did before, including EPA.

In Michigan, farmers fought government auditing of their farms ever since the idea of “permits to farm” surfaced in the late 1980s. Even today, farmers in Michigan maintain a defensiveness about government people visiting their farms and looking at the way they do things. They sometimes resist Natural Resources Conservation Service agents and Extension educators.

But when the buyers said, “we want to see what you’re doing,” the implied threat of “or else we won’t buy your products” crushed resistance.

In some ways, it makes sense. Half a century ago, dairy farmers gave in to periodic farm inspections so they could get a license to sell milk. Nobody loved “the milk inspector,” but few challenged the need. Produce is now going to follow that path.

The sad part is that the food safety craze is partly that – crazy, ridden with fear and suspicion – and driven by the most conservative elements in our society.

This is going to change the way farmers do things. Little things, like going with your dog to walk the orchard or letting the dog chase away the deer, might not be allowed. Worse, expectations could increase, demanding that you better control not just the dog, but the deer, too. There are already reports of wildlife enthusiasts being alarmed because the food safety fanatics want wildlife kept away from farms. Just where wildlife should go isn’t clear.

Food safety is not a back-to-nature movement. It is truly an anti-nature movement, with overwhelming fear cleverly cloaked behind concern for our fellow man.





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