Task force seeks to lift restrictions on farm markets

October 20, 2008
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LANSING — Efforts are under way to give farm markets shelter under the state’s Right-to-Farm Act.

“Farm markets are a huge emerging business, and the work being done will address questions that are out there,” said Jim Johnson, director of environmental stewardship at the Department of Agriculture. “It’s an important process so people have the opportunity to take advantage of buying local food.”

Johnson said recent problems with contaminated foods from other countries have generated interest in buying food closer to where it’s grown.

The 1981 law authorizes the state to create Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices, or GAAMPs. These guidelines protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits and local regulations if they follow widely accepted industry practices.

Today, there are no GAAMPs for farm markets or agricultural tourism operations.

Agri-tourism includes seasonal activities such as “u-pick” farms, pumpkin festivals and corn mazes.

A new task force report calls for closing that loophole.

Ken Nye, a commodity specialist at the Michigan Farm Bureau, said the state is growing in these industries because of both farmer and customer interest.

“These markets are quite vibrant in the state. A lot of people look at it as home-grown local food and entertainment,” said Nye. “We have real opportunities, and hopefully GAAMP and additional legislation can foster this industry even further.”

A revision of the law would give farmers a better understanding of how their practices are defined, and how the state can work to protect them.

“The Right-to-Farm Act specifies farmers have the right to market their farm products, but that’s all it says,” said Johnson. “Farm markets are everything from roadside tomatoes in boxes to operations like wineries. There needs to be clarity on what gets governed and whether agricultural tourism has a place in the act.”

A state Farm Market Task Force is behind the recommended change. The task force, compiled of farmers, local officials, academics, environmental groups and Michigan Farm Bureau staff, said the Agriculture Department needs to draft a guideline for farm markets. It also called for legislation to address parts of tourism operations that aren’t covered now.

Technical committees like the task force review GAAMPs annually to update them as needed. Changes cover farm practices such as pesticide use, animal care and cranberry production.

Nye, a task force member, said the new guidelines would be voluntary.

“If a farm market is found to be in compliance with GAAMP, it would give the farmer protection and leeway in court against local ordinances and lawsuits,” said Nye. “It’s not going to be a free ride to do whatever. They still need to have a business that is operated correctly.”

Although regulations vary among townships, Nye describes them as too restrictive overall.

“Too often we’ve found farm markets — an operation wanting to sell a limited supply of things over a limited amount of time — have to follow regulations that a regular grocery store would also have to meet,” said Nye. “They are a lot different in terms of size of operation.”

Kelly Turner, a regional representative at the Oakland County Farm Bureau, said there needs to be statewide regulation so varying rules can’t get farmers into trouble when they venture to sell commodities across township borders.

“It’s kind of like driving,” said Turner. “There are uniform laws like seat belts and driving on the right side of the road. If there are no baseline rules for farmers, it can get ugly. People are asking for regulations to keep themselves out of trouble.”

There are no current comprehensive figures on the economic impact of farm markets and agri-tourism in the state, experts say.

Johnson said the task force recommended updated methods to measure and understand the economic impact of selling agricultural products on the farm.

The next step in developing new GAAMPs will happen at Michigan State University. The department will ask the university to create another task force to develop specific provisions.

Once the GAAMP is created, the Agriculture Commission will make the final approval.

It may be several months before guidelines are finalized, Johnson said.

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