Right On, Man

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

Since Father’s Day happens to fall on a Sunday this year, I’m dedicating this edition of the Thornapple Blog to my own personal father. Don’t laugh. Lots of people have their own personal fathers, so why should it seem strange to be talking to them on Father’s Day? By chance my own personal father (who lives in Missouri) has asked me to write about “right to farm laws.” In short, I’m offering good advice this morning and as the fool-poet of the 1960s Allan Sherman once sang, “Good advice costs nothing and it’s worth the price.” But here’s a warning to my other regular reader: this may get a little boring.

One thing to notice is that “right to farm” covers a lot of turf. Mainly we are talking about a bunch of laws and ordinances that have been enacted throughout these United States of America since the mid-1980s. They don’t all say exactly the same thing. Some of these laws have been more carefully crafted than others, but getting into the details of that would involve actual research on my part. Being a modern academic person I do not do actual research unless and until someone gives me a grant that allows me to make one of my students do the heavy lifting. What’s more, I’m not aware that any of the Great Philosophers from Socrates, Plato and Xenophon right on through to Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche ever wrote about the right to farm. Hegel may have gotten close but we would still be stretching things just a bit to extract a right to farm discussion from Grundlienen der Philosophie des Recht. So I’m just going to make everything that follows in today’s blog up from scratch.

Right to farm laws started proliferating when farmers (by which we implicitly mean big farmers) got torqued by zoning restrictions and county ordinances passed by newly arrived suburbanites who had themselves been torqued when these big farmers decided to lay down a fresh layer of pig manure on the north forty one day when the wind was just right. These newly arrived suburbanites had come out to the country in order to enjoy the bucolic joys of wild nature (especially the picturesque red barns and silos) and the agrarian lifestyle. They never thought that this had anything to do with the smell of freshly applied pig manure, and they were quite reasonably concerned that the odiferous quality of their farming neighbors’ strange proclivities might cause a drop in their property values. Sooner or later the newly arrived suburbanites outnumbered the farmers and when that happens, you can be sure that some kind of zoning or county ordinance is in the offing.

But say hey, said the big farmers. Not only were we here before you, we were the ones who made this place into the bucolic paradise that attracted you out of the city in the first place. Now as a certified academic philosopher I’m contractually obligated to point out that this is not typically the kind of argument that will be recognized to establish a moral right. So the farmers augmented their umbrage with references to Jefferson, the agrarian heritage of the countryside and the moral superiority of the farming people. This allowed them to get some of these laws passed in state legislatures, where they take legal precedence over zoning restrictions and county ordinances. In effect, right to farm laws trump local consensus on land use, giving the prerogative to the landowner.

Time passes. Big farmers get less popular and people start to shop local. You won’t get rich doing it, but you can now certainly make a living by growing high value fruit and vegetable crops on less than an acre. What’s more, with the economy going the way it is there are plenty of urban areas in the United States where plots of 2 acres or more can be had simply by putting up the unpaid taxes. We start to get an urban farming movement. And it turns out that some of these right-to-farm laws turn out to be very useful to the latter day hippies, feminists and organic food fundamentalists who are eking out a living by growing herbs for local chefs and selling carrots, sweet potatoes and cucumbers at the weekly farmers’ market. They are particularly helpful for people who want to keep goats or chickens.

“Whoa, Nellie,” said the big farmers, many of whom were deeply skeptical not only of the idea that a proper farm could occupy less than 500 acres but also of the preposterous suggestion that women could be considered farmers. Now as we’ve said before in this space, the official USDA definition of a farm could apply to a couple of cigar boxes under a Gro-Light (and we ain’t talkin’ babies, Jack). So the next thing you know we are in a bit of a tizzy, with some of the big, self-righteous farmers taking it upon themselves to prevent these upstart hooligans from claiming Jefferson’s legacy, not to mention undercutting their commodity markets. They started coming out against right to farm, or at least such a broad interpretation of it, and then they started to argue that we need a more “reasonable” understanding of what is protected by this right, and what is not.

So in present tense, the right to farm debate is coming down to a contest between people who support “local food” and people who think that this is not real farming at all, mainly because these upstart wanna-be “farmers” don’t survey their domain from behind the windshield of 14-foot tall air-conditioned four-wheel-drive Big Buds. But on the other side of this issue, if you decide to side with the little guys don’t be too surprised if you wake up one morning to the sweet smell of freshly applied pig manure.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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