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Article of Interest - The Environment

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Bridges4Kids LogoVoluntary Regulations Still an Issue For Large Scale Animal Farms and Their Impact on Neighboring Communities
Gongwer News Service, August 6, 2003

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Exemplifying a new breed of farmers leading agriculture into a future of farm consolidation, Joe Marhofer is the proud owner of a large-scale hog operation in Ionia County that handles 7,000 animals. Despite the large size of the farm, Mr. Marhofer said his relations with nearby non-farming residents are good, and that his neighbors are impressed with the farm and glad to have it nearby.

But Mr. Marhofer's farm did not always enjoy the support of the public. In fact, for a time he could not even get his idea off the ground, as the thought of locating such a sizeable operation in the region met strong resistance from local residents.

The township government acted swiftly, passing an ordinance to block creation of the farm "about two minutes after they figured out what I was doing," Mr. Marhofer said. At township meetings residents charged that he only cared about money and would pollute nearby water resources, and they told him the township did not want a large-scale farm of the sort, he added.

What enabled Mr. Marhofer and other farmers blocked by local government zoning ordinances to expand their farms or locate to new sites was passage of an amendment in 1999 to the state's Right to Farm Act. The amendment wrested control of farm expansion away from local communities and into the hands of the state by preempting any local regulations or zoning ordinances.

The amendment was one of many significant pieces of legislation passed the year after former Governor John Engler won a third term and the Republican Party took full control of the Legislature.

At the same time, the law mandated the Department of Agriculture to create a set of generally accepted agricultural and management practices--called GAAMPs for short-which spell out regulations farmers should follow when laying down manure, siting a location for a new farm or controlling odors.

But four years after passage of the Right to Farm amendment, farmers and local government officials continue to argue whether the act provides for enough regulation of farms to ensure that local citizens are protected, although the debate may have shifted from which governing body should control farm expansion to what is the best way to ensure farmers are following a specified set of guidelines.

Furthermore, disagreements exist over the sufficiency of regulations and enforcement of the GAAMPs.

Supporters of the GAAMPs say they have created a consistent set of standards-previously farms located in more than one township often had to comply with different sets of ordinances-which are based on scientific evidence instead of reflecting concerns of a local council.

"At the same time local units were preempted, there was a state-wide standard put in place," said Vicky Pontz, director of Environmental Stewardship at the state department. "(Farmers) have to look at how many non-farm residents are in a certain distance. They have to provide us all sorts of information, including a site map and engineering plan."
Mr. Marhofer said before passage of the amendment, local governments would often pass an ordinance blocking livestock operations as soon as they learned of a farmer's intentions to locate a farm in the township. But the amendment created "one set of guidelines statewide. ... It's made it easier because they're clear cut," he said.

Farmers wishing to expand their operation or create a new farm also must complete a Department of Agriculture application, which is reviewed to judge whether the operation can comply with GAAMPs and its implications on zoning ordinances, groundwater reserves and neighboring residents, Ms. Pontz said. In the case of odor, the department uses a Minnesota odor-estimating model to ensure that neighboring residents are affected by odor only five percent of the time, she said.

"We've certainly influences where and how they've decided to expand and set up a new expansion," Ms. Pontz said. "The GAAMPs themselves have served as a better decision making tool."

Patrick White, supervisor for Pavilion Township in Kalamazoo County, will agree with the idea of such statewide regulations, but he said his township's experiences under the GAAMPs have been disappointing.

The regulations alone did not prevent a large-scale operation in the area from violating procedures for laying manure, possibly threatening local residents' groundwater supplies and the ecology of nearby creeks, he said. Only after several years and intensive pressure from the state did the farm agree to comply with the GAAMPs, he said.

"It's generally accepted practices, but we need something in law instead of just a slap on the wrist," said Mr. White, former president of the Michigan Township Association. "How do you enforce generally accepted principles? You enforce law, not principles."

Even with the GAAMPs in place, farms spread manure onto hillsides, construct tanks that can hold 4 million gallons of liquid manure and dump the manure all over their fields, Mr. White said. Not only does this cause odor problems, but if the manure does not quickly seep into the ground, rain can cause it to run off into rivers, groundwater basins and other sources of drinking water for neighboring residents, he said.

David Bertram, a legislative liaison for the Michigan Townships Association said while farmers can face lawsuits if they violate the GAAMPs, such breeches are difficult to regulate and some farmers are not deterred from continuing to violate them. "The problem with the GAAMPS is they need to become rules. At least then you have consistency," he said.

More consistency could also be attained if the Agriculture Commission, which reviews the GAAMPs annually, would stop constantly changing the regulations, Mr. Bertram said. The procedures are revised each year, which can confuse farmers and also force township government to constantly revise their ordinances to fall in line with the new GAAMPs, he said. For example, changes have been made every year to the number of homes that can be within the radius of farm odors, Mr. Bertram said.

"The GAAMPS shouldn't be a system that can be allowed to be tinkered with every year. They should be rules ... so the department can administer and enforce them as rules," he said, adding that before the Right to Farm amendment was passed farmers were subject to more consistent guidelines on the local level.

And Mr. White added that townships often have not had a fair share of input into the review process, and that the officials revising the GAAMPs often do not have enough knowledge of the various agricultural issues regulated by the GAAMPs.

But supporters counter that the changes are merely minor revisions, the review process is necessary because the GAAMPs are still relatively new procedures in a growth process and that as the changing nature of the agricultural industry requires farms to expand, new sets of GAAMPs may be required in the future.

Township officials have a say in such changes because they are represented on the commission along with university professors, state officials and members of the agricultural industry, said Scott Piggott, manager of the Agricultural Ecology department at the Michigan Farm Bureau.

"Any decision heeded by the bodies that look at these guidelines is pretty well balanced, in my opinion. And it's subject to public approval," Mr. Piggott said.

While the guidelines are voluntary, the very nature of the agricultural industry demands that any regulations placed upon farmers allow some flexibility for their operations instead of acting as steadfast procedures, Mr. Piggott said.

Some GAAMPs advise farmers to avoid spreading manure on Sundays and holidays, but if a weather forecast predicts several days of heavy rain which could soak a field and prevent manure from being laid for over a week, a farmer may need to spread it on a Sunday, he pointed out.

"It makes sense that there is enough flexibility to make changes. It makes sense because agriculture is an open industry," he said. "It's not a system without regulation, it's just a system to help farmers come into compliance with environmental standards in a method they are comfortable with."

Mr. Marhofer said he prefers the GAAMP program because it does not tell farmers exactly how to meet certain environmental guidelines, but instead "it tells you this is the standard we want you to meet."

As for the farmers who purposely decide to shun the GAAMPs, if their operations end up violating environmental laws they forfeit coverage under the Farm Act for not following the GAAMPs, said Gordon Wenk, deputy director of Environmental Stewardship at the Department of Agriculture. Such lawsuits have been contested in the past, with both farmers and the residents who sued winning cases.

"We try to work with producers to try and make changes that are necessary through a voluntary method. If they do not, they get recommended to the Department of Environmental Quality for follow-up regulatory enforcement," Mr. Wenk said, adding that he believes most producers are compelled to follow the GAAMPs to guarantee protection under the law.

But farmers are punished for violations of the GAAMPs only if they are sued, and while neighboring residents can sue many of them do not want to engage in such court procedures, Mr. Bertram said.

Another issue that was a concern while the Right to Farm amendment was being debated in 1999, and still is now, is whether the GAAMPs would allow large, commercialized farms to overrun the state. Local governments before the amendment was passed could implement zoning ordinances to control the size of farms moving into their areas of jurisdiction, and attempts were made in to add provisions to the legislation allow local governments to retain control over large farms with more than a certain number of animals.

Although such amendments failed, since passage of the law only 18 of the 68 applications received by the Department of Agriculture have been from farmers wishing to create new farms, with the rest being requests for expansions to existing farms, Ms. Pontz said.

"I don't think that number would have changed a great deal based on passage of the amendment," she said. "Even though there's a lot of expansion going on across the state, most of it is just the family farm trying to fit another brother, or another son, into the operation."

But Mr. Bertram said that when comparing the number of animals brought in to the state on new, large-scale farms to the number of animals lost when a smaller family farmer goes out of business, statistics indicate a clear increase in the number of intensive livestock. "I don't think those numbers add up to equal, I think they're increasing," he said.
    

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