The Role of the State In Urban Agriculture Policy

In May of this year, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development changed the state’s livestock siting guidelines. The change created a sizeable controversy. Many questioned the agency’s authority to make this change at all. The Right to Farm Act prohibited, without exception, a farm from being found to be a nuisance as long as it complied with generally accepted agricultural and management practices (GAAMPs). The new livestock siting guidelines essentially removed the protection the Right to Farm Act provided regarding nuisance lawsuits from urban farms that involved livestock.

However, the new regulations didn’t leave urban farmers completely high and dry. Instead, they placed the regulatory control firmly in the hands of local municipalities. The legality of this regulation is questionable. A Right to Farm Act provision expressly preempts any local ordinance, regulation, or resolution that extends or revises any part of the Act. Therefore, some have argued that the livestock siting guidelines appears to be an instance of a state agency rewriting a piece of legislation.

Questions regarding administrative law and the extent of agency power involve serious ideological questions regarding how our democracy functions. However, of equal importance for many is the question of what role the state will take in developing urban agriculture. The answer that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development seemed to give back in May was that it didn’t care, and Michigan cities could do what they wished. This, quite frankly, is not good enough. Other states, such as California with the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, are creating innovative policies that incentivize urban farming. Michigan should be following suit.

Perhaps in response to the outcry in May, the Department has convened a 20-member Urban Livestock work group that will continue to discuss the issue of livestock on urban farms with the goal of providing recommendations that will stimulate and support livestock production in urban areas. The meetings of the work group are not open to the public, but the 20-member work group was described as a cross-section of agriculture, municipal, food, and community groups. The list of participants can be seen here.

What will come of the Urban Livestock work group is anyone’s guess. However, the state should take a hint from other legislatures and realize that creating an innovative policy at the state level could go a long way to incentivizing the proliferation of urban agriculture throughout the state, which would effectively amplify the great work already being done by urban farmers in Michigan.

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