Even transplanted city folks coo and melt when a cute unweaned calf stretches out its tongue.
The problem is, lots of tongues have been wagging in Ogemaw County’s Edwards Township, and the resultant controversy has not been cute. Or factual. Some tongues have spewed outright ugliness.
Talk, however, doesn’t mean much since mid-April, after the Edwards Township Planning Commission unanimously voted down a proposal “to amend the zoning ordinance … to authorize intensive livestock facilities as special land uses…and to establish standards by which these uses are to be managed.”
As Ogemaw County Farm Bureau members pointed out, the state’s Right-to-Farm law preempts local government rules, no matter what some attorneys advise.
“Farm Bureau members in Ogemaw County did a great job in pointing out problems with an ordinance that is obviously illegal,” said Matt Kapp, Right-to-Farm expert with Michigan Farm Bureau. “Like so many other townships have tried, Edwards Township’s proposed ordinance tried to go way beyond GAAMPs (Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices).
“This was the worst one we’ve seen in my 10 years working on Right-to-Farm issues at Farm Bureau,” he said. “It demanded that the township have noise management plans, reclamation plans, statements of previous violations, even if it was on a different farm. It set its own site plans, an escrow account and many other things, all at the farmer’s expense. It was way out of bounds. But, we credit the county Farm Bureau with helping the township planning commission see to reason and turn it down before the township gets caught up in expensive and controversial legal battles that would only create more conflict between farmers and non-farmers,” he said. “Reducing those conflicts are precisely what the Right-to-Farm law was designed to do.”
Reducing conflicts, in fact, is all the township wanted, said township clerk Dennis Stephens.
“It was almost impossible to discuss this calmly,” Stephens said. “The Right-to-Farm act was the subject of our first emails to our attorney. We asked him to clarify when we were told that the ordinance went way beyond Right-to-Farm. The attorney said no, and he wrote our ordinance. So who are we supposed to believe?”
Perhaps, Kapp said, township officials should have believed a recent Attorney General opinion about a similar situation in Calhoun County (read Right to Farm upheld by AG and Township defies state, GAAMPs, at Michiganfarmnews.com) or any of several court opinions that uphold state law and deny local governments the right to pass laws that exceed Right-to-Farm.
“I don’t really understand why most people in this society think that every attorney is credible,” Kapp said. “Townships need to take care to hire attorneys with the proper expertise and experience to be sure their ordinances comply with existing laws.”
The township attorney insisted that an appeals court ruling, which he did not name, addressed only farms that are not covered by the Act, which is what the township had asked him to address.
“If a farm is in compliance with GAAMPs, everything is wonderful,” he said. “But what happens when a farmer is out of compliance? Then he’s no longer covered under Right-to-Farm. We as a township decided that we wanted to get that farmer right back in compliance with GAAMPs. I read the Attorney General’s opinion, and from my understanding, it didn’t address non-compliant farmers. We wanted to get farmers back into compliance with our township ordinance behind us.”
What started this?
The fact that there are no non-compliant farms in the township at this time makes no difference, though. The whole thing began when Wisconsin farmer J Hall began construction of a calf-raising operation that, Stephens conceded, has not operated outside the Right-to-Farm law, has not violated any environmental laws and is in compliance with GAAMPs.
Still, it was fear that got tongues wagging.
“In this community, we had not had that kind of CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation),” Stephens said. “We have dairies that are actively milking cows or were, so here comes this operation, packed with calves, and it’s totally different. People were afraid of what they didn’t know about. What unsettled us as a board was that we didn’t care for this CAFO, which is on sandy soil, to be so close to a body of water (a tributary into the Tittabawassee River). In Wisconsin, he ran afoul of the DEQ up there, and his operation here is close to a small tributary near an upscale community, and we worried about what might happen here. We don’t want pollution.”
Hall said his Wisconsin problem involved a local environmental activist group which, after dissatisfaction with a state DNR and national NRCS discharge permits were issued, involved the EPA, which fined the operation for manure runoff from a driveway.
“We wound up having to contain all the water on our 55 acres,” Hall said.
To address potential fears of similar conflicts in Edwards Township, Stephens said the township asked Dr. Chris Grobbel, who had done environmental and zoning work for the township for years, to take baseline water samples on the creek above and below the calf operation.
“As it turned out, (the Halls) are running what appears to be a tight ship, so our fears never materialized,” Stephens said.
Despite the calf farm’s clean record, the township board felt it should “be proactive and head off trouble at the pass,” Stephens said.
However, Kapp said, there is already a state law in place to head off trouble, and courts have affirmed many times that townships cannot require compliance with ordinances that go beyond the state Right-to-Farm law.
The township knew this as well. It received a letter from MDARD dated March 1, which spelled out quite clearly that in MDARD’s opinion, (it cited specific sections of the proposed ordinance), “the Right-to-Farm act preempts any authority a township may otherwise have to establish standards for farming operations.”
Knowing that other townships (Leroy, in particular) had received similar letters, and knowing a little something about Right-to-Farm because he’s a farmer, Edwards Township Trustee Brent Illig called the proposal “some hare-brained idea” and organized the county Farm Bureau to oppose it.
Aside from the obvious illegality of the proposed ordinance, one of the reasons Illig opposed it, he said, was a bit of a political matter.
“I was not even aware of the ordinance until it was in front of (the township board),” he said.
Stephens, while falling short of calling Illig’s claim a reprisal, said Illig didn’t report to the board what he knew about the Hall farm.
“He was a trustee who knew all along that this operation was coming, but didn’t bother to say anything to the board,” Stephens said. “As a trustee elected by all the people, it was his responsibility to inform the township so we could be prepared. It is his duty to serve all the people, not just the farmers.”
Because Illig organized farmers, the public hearing about the ordinance was “very loud and noisy,” Stephens said.
What Illig viewed as a grassroots effort to stop an illegal ordinance quickly became a defensive posture, Stephens said.
“I tried to make everyone understand that we were looking for input, that we were not in a hurry, and here’s our intent,” he said. “But farmers were very defensive about Right-to-Farm, crossed their arms and set their feet, saying they wanted no ordinance of any kind, without telling us what was wrong in the proposal. So the planning commission decided, after the raucous public heat, to let sleeping dogs lie for the time being.”
Illig said that was the best action to take, knowing that public officials have a rather thankless job.
“I don’t blame them,” Illig said. “They have a job to do, and it’s hard to find people to serve. But I think there was a basic ignorance about Right-to-Farm. I spoke to each member of the planning commission, and a lot of them said they were just duplicating Right-to-Farm. So we (the county Farm Bureau) provided them with information and let them see the differences. They had no idea because they had done no research. They believed what they were told (by the attorney).”
Township residents, Stephens said, also were not aware of the board’s intentions.
“The problem with the Right-to-Farm law is that it almost forces a township to sue one of its own residents, and we thought that was too strong a medicine,” he said. “We don’t like making war on our own citizens.”
Though it may have seemed to township officials that the 70 farmers who attended the zoning board meeting were waging war, it was their fears about heavy-handed, illegal regulations that ended up trumping the environmental fears of other citizens.
“The proposed ordinance was pretty scary to farmers when they read through it,” said Sonya Novotny, Michigan Farm Bureau’s regional representative for the area. “Our farmers were 100 percent against it, and explained their reasons in great detail at the meeting. Prior to that, they presented the entire township board with very specific talking points and the MDARD letter. This is a township where the predominant industry is agriculture. It was the best example of grassroots voices being heard I’ve ever seen in my seven years as a rep here.”
Stephens said if he had to do it over again, he’d have communicated better.
“I was not hands-on,” he said. “I should have taken a worksheet-like approach, drawn a line down the middle and listed pros and cons. I should have gathered the farmers together to say ‘this is what happened, and we don’t want it to happen again.’ If I had done that, we would not have had the upset feelings and some of the outrage.”
If there is outrage left over, it’s not from the farmers, Hall said.
“I’m raising calves for a lot of neighboring dairies,” he said. “We were wanted by the dairying community because we’re kind of a nursery for dairies. It was the rest of the community that was scared. At the meeting, there was absolutely no one but three members of the board who wanted to pass it. I think it was frustrating for the township, which spent a lot of money on a bad attorney.”
Frustration, in many cases, is what gets tongues wagging. But when fear so heavily influences public policy, things get ugly fast, Kapp said.
“We understand the need for local control in many instances,” he said. “But making policy based on fear and ignorance of the law stopped being cute a long time ago. We have Right-to-Farm for a reason, and we have county Farm Bureaus for a reason. In this case, the county Farm Bureau showed by its action the reason they’re in place. Activism runs both ways. This was not a way for farmers to stick out their tongues at the township. It was a way to do what’s right, uphold the law and preserve farming exactly where it belongs—in a rural community.”