The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment is enforcing a new policy that threatens the livelihoods of small farms raising heritage breeds of pigs that are popular with chefs and others buying in local food markets.
On April 1, the new DNRE policy turned those farmers into potential felons for raising what the agency says are “invasive species.”
But parts of the farming community, some state legislators, and stakeholders in the local food movement are pushing back.
Last week, Michigan’s Commission on Agriculture and Rural Development voted unanimously to send a request for reconsideration to the DNRE, saying it’s time for the agency to take a step back and look more closely at its new policy that prohibits these pigs in Michigan.
“To me, the issue is feral swine—swine in the wild,” said Don Coe, a member of the commission, which oversees the state agriculture department. “It is not pigs being raised on the farm. If it is under your control, it is domestic.”
State Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, and 15 other state senators and legislators are calling on Gov. Rick Snyder to rescind the order. As of today they had not yet heard back from him.
And area chefs say it’s time to step forward and support a Missaukee County farmer who is challenging the state in court and at the Capitol. They’re holding a fundraiser for the farmer, Mark Baker of Bakers’ Green Acres, on Monday, April 23.
Domesticated Versus Feral
At issue is a DNRE order that took effect two weeks ago declaring pigs with certain physical characteristics “invasive,” like Asian carp, even though they do not live in the wild. The order prohibits them and made raising them on pasture on a farm a felony.
The DNRE says it is trying to nip a big problem in the bud—the large amount of potential damage that feral pigs can inflict on land and agriculture. The agency includes hybrid Mangalitsa pigs, popular for their flavor among chefs.
The DNRE website has fact sheets and video of damage that feral pigs have wrought in Southern states. The agency cites commercial hunting ranches as the source of feral pigs in Michigan and says that it recorded 340 sightings of feral pigs in 72 of Michigan’s 83 counties by the end of 2011, as well as 286 reported killed.
The DNRE estimates between 1,000 and 3,000 feral pigs are on the loose in the state. Those numbers are based on breeding patterns and not actual sightings.
After small farmers raised concerns that their property and livelihood were being threatened by the order, the DNRE exempted purebred Mangalitsas.
But that doesn’t help people like Mark Baker, who is breeding hybrids. He breeds Mangalitsas with Russian boars in order to make them winter-hardy in northern Michigan and because the boars are good mothers.
You can see Mr. Baker’s pigs—safely secured behind farm fencing—in video posted at BakersGreenAcres.com. Click on “videos.”
And, while you’re there, you also can watch Mr. Baker testify before the Michigan Senate Agriculture Committee on March 29, painstakingly explaining that farm pigs are not feral—gone wild because they’ve escaped or been abandoned and have no other way to stay alive.
In fact, farm pigs that get outside a fence want back inside it because that’s where the food is, Mr. Baker said.
What’s Going on Here?
The case raises questions about why the state’s natural resources department is exercising authority over agriculture.
It also highlights the lobbying muscle of industrial pork farmers, who raise pigs by the thousands in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and support the invasive pig order. They and other industrial-scale agriculture organizations claim the pigs affected by the order threaten their industry because they can spread disease.
After Mr. Baker’s testimony to the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Booher attempted to get the needed support of 20 senators to move a measure in the Senate to delay enforcement for 90 days. But industrial agriculture lobbyists “got all the guns out and killed it by only two votes,” said Mr. Coe, of the state agriculture commission.
Mr. Coe maintains the policy and the pork industry’s position are predictably and needlessly pitting “Big Ag” and “Small Ag” against each other. He supports both sectors, often finding himself defending industrial agriculture from what he sometimes calls “demonization” by those in the local food and environmental movement, yet fully in support of small-scale farmers who often are dismissed as unimportant by industrial agriculture.
Mr. Coe is managing partner of Black Star Farms, in Suttons Bay, an agri-tourism destination where he annually grows a couple Mangalitsa pigs himself. He agrees with Mr. Baker that domesticated pigs don’t try to escape from their food source, and pointed out that industrial pork farmers move 45,000 hogs a week in Michigan and could be the source of some escapees themselves.
The DNRE, he said, sought endorsement of its policy from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development some months ago. But the farm agency refused to support it, and instead endorsed regulations that were being written for game ranches that included strict requirements on fencing, tagging swine for traceability to the ranch, and fines; but that legislation has stalled in the state Legislature.
The issue, meanwhile, is being watched closely around the country. The chairman of the Tennessee House Agriculture Committee, for example, sent a letter in March to the chairman of the Michigan House Agriculture Committee, saying the DNRE policy would set a dangerous precedent for agriculture in other states.
Ways to Get Involved
Opposition to the order continues to spread. State Senator Booher penned an opinion piece in early March.
The Michigan Land Use Institute urged opposition to the pig order in its March 7 Taste the Local Difference e-newsletter, which is sent to its Food & Farm Program supporters.
When the food editor at Grist asked MLUI who to talk to about it, they wrote this article.
Chef Eric Patterson, of the renowned Cook’s House, in Traverse City, weighed in with a blog recently, in which he told how he and 10 other chefs met to discuss what they could do to help Mark Baker and his family.
“We have the proverbial David vs. Goliath, if you will,” he wrote. “Not only are there legal fees but there is the emotional toll that is being taken on him and his family. The Bakers need to know they are not in this alone. They need to know there is a community behind them.”
How can you weigh in?
And that fundraiser for Mark Baker and his legal costs? It’s slated for 7 p.m. Monday, April 23, at The Blue Heron Restaurant in Cadillac. The cost is $75, not including tax and gratuity. Make reservations by calling The Blue Heron at 231-775-5461.
Diane Conners, the senior policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Healthy Food for All program, is a veteran journalist and former farmers market master. Reach her at email@example.com.