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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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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