Detroit’s Urban Farms: Food of the Future or Slow Erosion of Farmer’s Rights?

Image via Joanne Bamberger. All rights reserved

Legislators in Michigan’s capital are poised to rock the state’s agriculture community with the introduction of a billthat would open up the state’s long-standing Right to Farm Act, a piece of legislature that has protected the state’s farms — those of all types and sizes from the bottom of the mitten to the tip of the Upper Peninsula — from harassment legislation for decades.

The Right to Farm Act has historically protected farmers by preventing municipalities from regulating commercial agricultural operations above and beyond the state’s already instituted Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPs). These “generally accepted” practices are designed by agricultural experts and cover everything from use of pesticides to farm animal care to manure disposal and are written in-state and reviewed by local agricultural experts whose jobs are deeply rooted in the local agriculture industry, thus tailored for the types of farms and the unique environmental and climate conditions of the state of Michigan. They provide farmers with sound, frequently-updated guidelines by which to best be stewards of their land and livestock while having minimal effects on both neighboring wildlife and human communities.

And, in the case of the Right to Farm Act, “commercial agricultural operations” are defined as any agricultural business with the intent to profit. They should not be confused with the “commercial agriculture” that has been vilified by Food, Inc. and its ilk. Commercial agriculture operations protected by the act include every type of farm from large dairies to small, road-side fruit and vegetable stands. Under the provisions of Right to Farm young couples just starting out on a few acres have been offered as much protection as big farms that have been established for generations. If the City of Detroit and well-meaning, but perhaps short-sighted, advocates have their way however, all of that could change very soon.

The new bill would exempt any city with a population greater than 600,000 — which, at this time qualifies only Detroit — from the limitations set forth in the Right to Farm Act. The City of Detroit would be free to pass ordinances and zoning restrictions that would dictate the way agricultural businesses inside the city would operate — and if they should be allowed to operate at all.

Advocates of the bill cite the potential it has to create jobs in what has become the nation’s example of what-not-to-do and much chatter has been excitedly aimed at what kind of 21st Century beacon Detroit could become if farm land, rather than vulgar graffiti and squatters, covered its abandoned neighborhoods and produced a majority of the city’s food — estimates as high as 70% have been bandied about. But, even if we forget about the part where handing over agricultural reins to The City of Detroit — which is arguably run by people with zero experience in anything other than concrete and armed robbery and who have only managed to run the city into the ground thus far — is about the worst agricultural idea we’ve had since Agent Orange, these proponents seem to be missing one key point: if Detroit wants Urban Farms all it has to do is get out of its own way.

Detroit’s would-be Urban Farmers are already protected and advised under the very same legislature — the very act this bill is dead set on compromising — as every other farmer in the state; legislature that is and has been working for decades in every area of the state including those in the immediate vicinity of the city itself. They are already advised by guidelines that have been specifically designed by agricultural experts to ensure smooth functioning of all of the state’s farms. The City of Detroit doesn’t need to be given unprecedented power over its agricultural entrepreneurs; it needs to get over its control issues and allow capable residents to rebuild their city with the more than ample tools already available to them.

This isn’t an exercise in progress, it’s a thinly veiled power grab by a city administration that is grasping at straws hoping to come out with one that might earn them a little credit for something other than presiding over one of the most dangerous metro areas in the nation. If there’s any hope left for the future of farming they’ll fail at this too.

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Diana Prichard is a Hog Farmer, Goose Wrangler, Freelance Writer and Agricultural Speaker. She owns and operates the diversified farm, Olive Hill, in rural Mid-Michigan; authors Cultivating the Art of Sustenance and is a regular writer of Ag and Food commentary.

  • This article makes a great deal of sense as far as it goes – it does sound like overkill to throw out a regulatory structure that has been working statewide, and start over from scratch for the city, requiring the creation of a whole new city bureaucracy.

    But the article is thin on details. The main question that any thinking voter will want to ask is: which SPECIFIC regulations or restrictions are preventing blighted urban land from being commercially farmed right now, and what power blocks are benefiting from those rules?

    If some of the barriers to urban farms are in the existing GAAMP rules, as presumably the city is claiming, then what are they, and where is the opposition to changing those sections of the GAAMP coming from?

    If all of them are in Detroit’s own zoning laws and city code, as Prichard proclaims in bold typeface, then what are they, and where is the opposition to changing those specific city regulations coming from?

    Surely the best solution is to keep the overall regulatory structure, but change the specific rules that are hampering urban farms, whichever code they lie within. SOMETHING is keeping this from happening. What is it?

    Successful reform nearly always requires identifying who has a vested interest in the status quo, and the mechanisms they are using to protect it. Often these special interests seek to direct attention away from the details, and onto a big picture statement that sounds agreeable. So far, I can’t tell whether it is the city administration who is telling us not to look behind the curtain, or the agricultural lobby, or both.

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