Michigan's Right-to-Farm Summary

Supporters of right-to-farm legislation in Michigan, first passed in 1981, have argued it protects farmland and family farmers, while critics have suggested it favors industrial-scale operations to the detriment of communities.1 Since the law was enacted, the number of farms in the state has dropped by 22 percent, with 11 percent fewer acres of farmland.2 So what does this legislation do in practice?

Michigan’s RTF Law at a Glance

Michigan’s RTF law provides no specific protections for family farmers or means to stop suburban sprawl. Rather, Michigan’s RTF law, like those present in the other forty-nine states, protects certain types of operations from nuisance suits when their activities impact neighboring property, for example through noise or pollution. In 1995, legislators amended the act to broaden what qualifies as protected activities, which include animal or plant production processes, structures and equipment used in commercial-scale production, and harvesting and storage, as well as the generation of noise, odors, dust, fumes, and other associated conditions.3

Conditions and Activities

To receive special RTF protections, farms and operations must be of commercial scale. In 1995, legislators passed amendments that substantially expanded the protection provided to farms and operations to also include (1) a change in ownership or size; (2) temporarily ceasing operations; (3) enrollment in government operations; (4) adopting new technology; or (5) a change in the type of farm product being produced.4Operations also receive protections if they exist before a change in land use or occupancy within a mile of their boundaries and if, before the change in land use, an operation would not have been a nuisance.

To receive nuisance suit protection, farms or operations must adhere to generally accepted agricultural and management practices. In 1995, the meaning of generally accepted agricultural practices became subject to determination by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development.5 The public can propose revisions to the department through comments, but they are not necessarily binding and thus are subject to controversy.6 In 2019, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tried to change the generally accepted agricultural practices to limit concentrated animal feeding operations’ waste application on frozen and snow-covered ground but was sued by agricultural industry groups.7 The proposed criteria were never imposed.

Residents can file grievances, but they remain subject to verification by the Department of Environmental Quality’s interpretation of generally accepted agricultural and management practices.8 If someone “brings more than 3 unverified complaints against the same farm or operation within 3 years,” that person may be ordered to pay the full costs of investigation of any fourth or subsequent unverified complaints.” Since generally accepted agricultural and management practices can be vague or voluntary, it can be difficult to verify complaints in accordance with prevailing protocol. Residents rarely resort to nuisance lawsuits, but when they do and win, the farming operation is not responsible for paying their litigation costs. However, in accordance with a 1995 amendment to the RTF law, when the outcomes reverse and the farming operation wins, it is automatically awarded costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney fees.9

Courts also have ruled that CAFO activities must meet the RTF law’s definition or conform to accepted management practices.10 In one case, the court ruled that even though homeowners lived on their property before a hog facility began operating on the neighboring land, the facility warranted RTF protection because the overall land use in the surrounding one-mile area had not changed from primarily agricultural to residential.11 Further, the RTF law leaves its mark directly on property, providing language that encourages sellers to disclose RTF protections and generally accepted agricultural practices on land deeds.12

Local Governance

Local governments are barred from enacting, maintaining, or enforcing an ordinance, regulation, or resolution that conflicts in any manner with the RTF law or with any generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under the law.13 However, if the local government anticipates negative environmental or public health impacts, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will review a proposed ordinance that suggests different standards and make a recommendation to the Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development on whether the ordinance should be approved. In some cases, political subdivisions were able to uphold their ordinances, even when defendants tried to use the RTF law to claim otherwise. Cases have included these rulings:

  • The RTF law does not prevent political subdivisions from regulating noncommercial farms.14
  • The RTF law does not prevent political subdivisions from regulating activities that do not meet the statutory definition of “farm” or are not necessary for the production, harvesting, or storage of “farm products,” such as composting, construction of buildings for an unrelated use, or auctions.15
  • The RTF law does not apply to farming practices for which there are no generally accepted agricultural management practices.16
  • RTF protections do not extend to a farming operation established after a change in zoning.17
  • The RTF law does not exempt farms from violations of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.18

Other Related Agricultural Laws

In 1998, the Michigan Agricultural Processing Act was enacted, offering a suite of nuisance protections to operations engaged in processing of agricultural products, including food for human consumption and animal feed.19 The act offers immunity to processing operations regardless of change in locality within one mile of the operation, a change in ownership or size, or a temporary cessation or interruption of processing or if the operation adopts a new technology or produces a new or different product.20 The act also requires that nuisance complaints be handled by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality prior to bringing suit in court and discourages repeat complaints. The law stipulates that a complainant who brings more than three “unverified nuisance complaints” within three years to Michigan’s Department of Agriculture will be responsible for the costs associated with the investigation.21 An “unverified nuisance complaint” is defined as “a nuisance complaint in which the director of the department of agriculture or his or her designee determines that the processing operation is using generally accepted fruit, vegetable, dairy product, meat, and grain processing practices.”22

In a 2021 class action suit, a Michigan court upheld a lower court opinion involving nuisance and negligence claims against an operation involved in sugar beet processing. The defendants claimed that the noxious odors produced by the operation constituted a nuisance. Upon appeal, the court held that the defendants were protected by Michigan’s Agricultural Processing Act as they were engaged in generally accepted practices.23 Additionally, the court held that the plaintiffs did not fully utilize the required administrative procedures stipulated in the act.24

  • 1. Kevin Braciszeski, “Issue to Be Looked at the State Legislature—Hog FarmingLudington (Mich.) Daily News, October 16, 1998; Erin Skene, “Townships, Farmers at Odds of Act—Right to Farm,” Ludington Daily News, November 4, 2019; Jeremy Wahr, “Proposed Farm Practice Has Critics—Some Say the New Rules Would Allow Farmers to Ignore Local Zoning Regulations,” Ionia (Mich.) Sentinel-Standard, November 15, 2018.
  • 2. U.S. Department of Commerce, “Table 1. Farms, Land in Farms, and Land Use: 1982 and Earlier Census Years,” in 1982 Census of Agriculture, Volume 1: Geographic Area Series, Part 22: Michigan State and County Data, Chapter 1: State Data (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1984), https://agcensus.library.cornell.edu/wp-content/uploads/1982-Michigan-CHAPTER_1_State_Data-121-Table-01.pdf; “2021 State Agriculture Overview: Michigan,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, accessed October 21, 2022, https://www.nass.usda.gov/Quick_Stats/Ag_Overview/stateOverview.php?state=MICHIGAN.
  • 3. See 1995 Mich. Pub. Acts 94 (H.B. 4300); Mich. Comp. Laws § 286.472 (2021).
  • 4. 1995 Mich. Pub. Acts 94 (H.B. 4300) (amending, in relevant part, Mich. Comp. Laws § 286.473).
  • 5. 1995 Mich. Pub. Acts 94 (H.B. 4300) (amending, in relevant part, Mich. Comp. Laws § 286.472).
  • 6. Edward Hoogterp, “‘Right-to-Farm’ Rules Go before State Panel,” Muskegon (Mich.) Chronicle, May 9, 2000.
  • 7. See Ashley Davenport, “Michigan Ag Organizations, Farmers File CAFO Permit Appeal,” Michigan Ag Today, June 3, 2020.
  • 8. Mich. Comp. Laws § 286.474 (2021).
  • 9. Mich. Comp. Laws § 286.473 (2021).
  • 10. Milan Tp. v. Jaworski, No. 240444, 2003 WL 22872141 (Mich. Ct. App. Dec. 4, 2003).
  • 11. Steffens v. Keeler, 503 N.W.2d 675 (Mich. Ct. App. 1993).
  • 12. Mich. Comp. Laws § 286.473 (2021).
  • 13. Mich. Comp. Laws § 286.474 (2021).
  • 14. Brown v. Summerfield Twp., No. 304979, 2012 WL 3640330 (Mich. Ct. App. Aug. 23, 2012); Shelby Twp. v. Papesh, 704 N.W.2d 92 (Mich. Ct. App. 2005).
  • 15. Charter Twp. of White Lake v. Ciurlik Enterprises, No. 326514, 2016 WL 2772160 (Mich. Ct. App. May 12, 2016); Cty. of Mason v. Indian Summer Co-Op Inc., No. 301952, 2012 WL 3536789 (Mich. Ct. App. Aug. 16, 2012).
  • 16. Claybanks Twp. v. Feorene, No. 322043, 2015 WL 8277773 (Mich. Ct. App. Dec. 8, 2015).
  • 17. Jerome Twp. v. Melchi, 457 N.W.2d 52 (Mich. Ct. App. 1990).
  • 18. King of the Wind Farms Inc. v. Michigan Comm'n of Ag, No. 257097, 2005 WL 3556150 (Mich. Ct. App. Dec. 29, 2005).
  • 19. Mich. Comp. Laws § 289.821–289.825 (2022).
  • 20. Mich. Comp. Laws § 289.823 (2022).
  • 21. Mich. Comp. Laws § 289.284 (2022).
  • 22. Mich. Comp. Laws § 289.824(5) (2022).
  • 23. Morley v. Michigan Sugar Co., No. 354085, 2021 WL 5405867 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 18, 2021).
  • 24. Morley, 2021 WL 5405867.