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Is Michigan's Right to Farm act holding up large-scale urban farming efforts in Detroit?

Published: Tuesday, March 29, 2011, 2:01 PM     Updated: Tuesday, March 29, 2011, 2:18 PM
hantz-farms.jpgHantz Farms hopes to turn vacant Detroit lots, such as this, into the world's largest urban farm.
Roughly two years after announcing plans to build the world's largest commercial urban farm in Detroit, businessmen John Hantz this month finally purchased his first 20 parcels of abandoned land from the city.

But the deal came with a catch: He isn't allowed to farm the land for-profit.

Instead, Hantz Farms will work to "restore and beautify" the eastside property, planting flowers and apple trees while potentially giving away produce for free.

The temporarily downsized plans are, in part, a byproduct of Mayor Dave Bing's effort to rightsize Detroit. Urban farming, while practiced on a small-scale throughout the city, remains technically illegal in Detroit, and leaders have delayed rewriting agricultural zoning regulations as the mayor develops the Detroit Works Project, his big-picture plan to re-imagine land use.

But as John Gallagher of The Detroit Free Press points out, the city says Michigan's Right to Farm Act is also a major sticking point. The law bars municipalities from litigating farms that are already operating, and Detroit leaders worry it will be unable to regulate Hantz Farms once it's up and running.
March 29, Freep.com: "While we are providing residents the opportunity to share their feedback on the idea of large-scale commercial farming through the Detroit Works Project, the concept depends on amendments to the Right to Farm Act," Dan Lijana, a spokesman for Bing, said last week.

"That has not happened, and until it does, commercial urban farming will remain a discussion, not an actionable item."
However, Andrew Kok, general counsel of the Michigan Farm Bureau, says that urban farming in Detroit does not require amendments to the Right to Farm Act. In an editorial published by the Free Press earlier this month, Kok pointed out the law includes many of the regulations the city might seek and noted that local governments can enact their own special ordinances if necessary in unique situations.
March 2, Freep.com: Rather than viewing the Right to Farm Act as a barrier to urban farming, the city should consider how the act could assist an urban farmer. For example, an urban loft dweller could one day object to the organic compost used by the neighboring community garden.

The Right to Farm Act is designed to help people farm in a safe, responsible and reasonable manner. If Detroit wants to grow through urban farming, the Right to Farm Act is on the city's side -- and so is the Michigan Farm Bureau.
Hantz Farms, for its part, appears to understand the city's desire to amend the law.
March 15, Hantz Farms LLC (Facebook): In Michigan the Right To Farm Act allows commercial farm businesses, within limits, to produce the full range of agricultural products associated with farming. Certain types of production fit better within urban centers than others. If a city allows commercial agriculture they currently lose control of what type of ag farms will invest in over time. It's a delicate balancing act.
No one can blame city leaders for taking a careful look at urban farming and trying to incorporate any new regulations into the Detroit Works Project.  But it's had two years to do so, two years in which it could have sought amendments to the Right to Farm Act. In the meantime, it's left up barriers for businessman who wants to buy abandoned city land, put it back on the property-tax payrolls and, yes, turn a profit.


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