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Posted on Thu, Dec 2, 2010 : 5:27 a.m.

Could right-to-farm law harm efforts to feed the hungry with 'urban farming'?

By Rick Haglund

A strange thought swept across my mind as I watched a preview of the short documentary, "The Kings of Flint."

The film, produced by students and faculty at Michigan State University, tells the story of Jackie and Dora King, who teach young people how to grow food and practice martial arts in the struggling city of Flint.

As I watched these kids turn a garbage-filled city lot into a working urban farm, I wondered, "Are we returning to an agrarian society?"

In their heyday, our big industrial cities turned out cars, trucks, appliances and war materiel.

Now the factories are gone and those cities, Flint and Detroit among them, are looking at allowing large-scale fruit-and-vegetable farms on vacant land that once sprouted industry.

"Almost every big city in the country is experiencing a movement to urban agriculture," said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor who specializes in urban property law.

Even in wealthier cities, such as Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, citizens have sought permission to raise chickens in their yards. Ann Arbor passed an ordinance allowing it in 2008, while Grand Rapids turned down a similar plan this year.

Farmers markets are popping up like dandelions across the state. There are 228 local markets registered with the Michigan Farmers Market Association, up 54 percent from the 148 markets registered just a year ago.

And it's now legal to sell food you prepare in your own kitchen, thanks to the state's new Cottage Food law. That sort of reminds me of how people survived the Great Depression.

We aren't really going back to the time before the Industrial Revolution took hold more than 100 years ago.

Michigan farm output of $5.5 billion last year represented little more than 1 percent of the state's gross domestic product of $368.4 billion.

But the state's economic destruction over the past decade has put a new twist on agriculture-related issues.

For example, Michigan passed a right-to-farm law in 1981 designed to protect farming from urban sprawl that was creeping into lightly populated rural areas of the state.

Today, with a lack of jobs and the collapse of the housing market all but halting building growth, some are worried that the right-to-farm law could harm urban farming.

A 2000 amendment to the law prevents local zoning ordinance from limiting farming operations. Mogk said that could prevent Detroit, which is drafting an agricultural use ordinance, from enforcing rules unique to urban farms that may be located near high-population centers.

"Urban agriculture is a good thing for the city if it does not impact surrounding neighborhoods," he told me.

A bill to exempt Detroit from the state's right-to-farm act is pending in the Legislature. It is being opposed by the state Department of Agriculture.

The renewed emphasis agriculture is a result of a number of things, including a poor economy, the rise of the local food movement and the lack of fresh foods available in economically depressed cities, known as "food deserts."

Michigan may have put the nation on wheels and is working to be a leader in advanced green technologies. But we're also struggling to feed ourselves.

Nearly 1.2 million people in the state — more than one in 10 — rely on emergency food programs, according to the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

Our future may be in a knowledge-based economy, but our brains won't work well until we can better nourish our bodies.

E-mail Rick Haglund at