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E-M:/ House Ag Hearing on SB 205

Enviro-Mich message from "Tom & Anne Woiwode" <woiwode@voyager.net>

SB 205 Hearing in House Draws a Crowd

With a large crowd assembled in an elegant hearing room of the brand new
House Office Building, the Michigan House Committee on Agriculture and
Resource Management was the site of an intense discussion about confined
animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Michigan, sparked by SB 205, a bill
which would preempt local control over agricultural operations.

The crowd was dominated by more than 15 elected township officials and more
than 30 farm families vehemently opposed to SB 205.  Reportedly, the
committee Chair, Mike Green, after leafing through the stack of cards from
those wishing to testify, expressed private exasperation that all of the
cards were from people opposing this bill! These folks, many of whom are
living with the nightmare of effectively unregulated CAFOs next door or in
their community, had gotten up hours before the 8 a.m. hearing time, many
taking a day off work or otherwise changing their schedules, to come to

As is far too often the case in the Legislature where the hearings schedules
and timing are geared to the full-time paid lobbyists, very few of these
committed folks actually got a chance to testify.  Many did speak after the
hearing in a press conference sponsored by Rep. Liz Brater directly across
the hall from the hearing room, followed by dropping in on legislators to
press their concerns.


The hearing started with Senator George McManus presenting the findings of
the Senate Task Force on the Preservation of Agriculture in Michigan.  The
senator made a pitch for SB 205, as did those who spoke for it today,
pointing to lawsuits brought against farmers.

The next witness was MDA Director Dan Wyant, whose testimony attempted the
contradictory goal of assuring the legislators that Michigan's Right to Farm
Law is a "model of conflict resolution" on issues regarding agriculture in
the state, and yet that SB 205's modifications were essential because local
units of government are driving farmers out of business with their
regulations.  Director Wyant was very quick to try to counteract comments
that had not even been made in the hearing yet, with a defensiveness that
was quite telling about just how hot this issue has become.  A primary theme
was that Michigan is not North Carolina -- that the disasters caused by
Hurricane Floyd shouldn't even be discussed because Michigan hasn't got
those kinds of problems YET.  The Director insisted that Michigan was
unlikely to face such problems because land costs a lot, and most of our
farms in the state are family owned -- even when they are corporations, they
are family owned.  In addition, technological know-how in the state
supposedly puts Michigan well ahead of the pack. Several times Director
Wyant asserted that Michigan doesn't have the kinds of problems that other
states have YET.

The crowd, a fundamentally polite group, was muttering under their breath as
these comments were made by the Director.  As a result, they appreciated the
fairly direct and harsh questioning of the Director by a handful of
legislators.  Rep. Liz Brater started off showing an article in the Sunday
New York Times (October 17) with a picture of an enormous pile of bloated,
dead pigs killed by the flooding associated with Hurricane Floyd which were
being fed into a portable incinerator.  Rep. Brater then asked, based on the
Director's comments supporting family farms and the assertion that out-of-
state corporate farms are not an issue here, if the MDA would support an
amendment to draw a line between the small farms and the animal factories,
allowing local control over the latter.  Director Wyant's circling on that
issue without ever landing would have made a veteran air traffic controller
from Chicago's O'Hare Airport proud.

Next question was from Rep. Rose Bogardus, who first wanted to be clear that
the Director had said the Right to Farm Act is a model, then asked "in that
case why are you seeking to eviscerate the local control provisions of this
model law?"  Rep. Bogardus raised concerns about the dangers of anti-biotic
resistant bacteria that have been found increasingly in waste from CAFOs
because most of these operations use antibiotics to fatten up the livestock.
Director Wyant attempted to characterize Rep. Bogardus's questions and
comments as opposition to animal agriculture in Michigan, to which comments
the Rep. took immediate and vociferous offense.  Rep. Bogardus grew up on a
farm, and pointed out that her district is one of the first places in the
state where suburbia moved to farming country, and that local controls only
make sense.

Later as Bogardus pressed the issue of why the MDA seems unwilling to
support a different standard to bring CAFOs under control while leaving
small family farms out of the loop, Director Wyant became somewhat
belligerant, insisting that he didn't know how one would distinguish among
the operations, and demanding the legislators tell him where the line would
be.  Rep. Brater pointed out to the Director that the purpose of a hearing
such as this was to get information from the agency into the hands of the
legislators so they can make good decisions, and Director Wyant's questions
of the legislators did not assist in that process.

Following Wyant, sponsor of the bill Senator Joel Gougeon spoke.  He said
that he has introduced SB 205 last spring, but it was only coming up now
after what he claimed to have been extensive efforts to meet with interested
parties about the bill and address the concerns (Note: as far as I know, NO
effort was ever made to meet with enviros, and meetings with the townships
association reportedly all resulted in the Farm Bureau saying they had no
intention of supporting any changes whatsoever).  After his presentation,
Rep. Joseph Rivet, who lives in the same township as Sen. Gougeon and served
as a township official previously, noted that their township has a couple of
plots of land of about 200 acres that are currently vacant, among the
suburban communities.  Rep. Rivet pointed out that this bill seems bound and
determined to allow anyone to plop down a CAFO on those parcels, next door
to subdivisions that have been in place for 25 years or more.  When Senator
Gougeon disputed this claim, the murmurings of the crowd turned into
vocalizations of disgust and dispute.  Sen. Gougeon had good enough humor to
note, then, that evidently there was some disagreement about that

Others who testified against the bill, after the more than one hour spent on
these first witnesses, included a Twp. Supervisor from a rural area outside
Grand Rapids, a farmer who saw a CAFO go in near his house that has
destroyed their quality of life, a representative of the Michigan Organic
Food and Farm Organization, a twp. Planning Commission member who related
her township's experience, which included an official from MDA coming to a
twp meeting and telling them if they didn't like the smell they should move,
and a representative for the Michigan Township's Association who focussed on
the actual language of the bill, thus beginning the real critical debate
about what should be in the law.

In favor of SB 205 was the Michigan Farm Bureau, which presented two farmers
who have faced legal problems as a result of their decisions to convert part
of their existing operations to CAFOs.  In one case the Twp first issued a
permit for a facility, then withdrew it, and the courts overturned the
withdrawal.  In the second, the judge after an agonizing consideration of
the issues, concluded that in fact the law does allow local units to
regulate odors and dust, and that this facility was in violation of those
standards.  (The plaintiffs in that case were actually in the hearing but
were not called on to provide their side of the story.)  An interesting note
that none of the proponents of SB 205 emphasize -- while claiming that
Michigan isn't like NC, in these two cases the farmers are doing exactly the
same kind of thing that is done in NC, where the huge conglomerates contract
with farmers to raise the company's pigs, a drastic change for old-fashioned
"family" farms.

At the press conference immediately following the hearing, presentations
were made by a farmer in his 80's, a third generation farmer on the
centennial farm his grandfather founded.  He talked about the multiple
facilities that started being built a few years ago, and about how his 8
sons and their families find it hard to visit anymore because the stench is
so bad.  He also poohpoohed assertions that these facilities are "family
farms" pointing out that no one lives there, and that the name on the tax
roles is for two people who live in, of all places, NORTH CAROLINA.  A
township official shared the story in his twp where they faced these
facilities in the 1980's.  The ordinance they put in place, which this bill
would apparently strike down, was drafted by a committee in his township
made up of a sheep farmer, a pig farmer, a beef farmer and a non-livestock
farmer.  It would be hard to find anyone more in tune than agriculture than
that group, he asserted.

An interesting thing happened, or perhaps DIDN'T happen in the press
conference. The numerous staff members of the MDA who had attended the
hearing, including the Director, showed up and stood in the back of the room
while the comments of opponents were presented.  Despite the rare and real
opportunity to talk with the people who feel wronged by the current policies
and practices of the MDA, I didn't see any MDA official approach any of the
people who told their heart wrenching stories about how facilities have
destroyed their lives -- the "conflict resolution" aspect of the Michigan
Right to Farm law, perhaps, disappears when confronted with angry, betrayed
citizens who feel the system has not only failed them, but that their only
options for any control are being wrenched out of their hands in the
legislative process as well.  There are some wonderful folks in the MDA who
clearly have a belief that the agency can work with the kinds of concerns
these folks have and possibly resolve them, but it is very telling that as
this administration pushes very hard to get SB 205 passed all semblance of
concern for the victims of these facilities seems to have disappeared.

Chairman Mike Green of the House Committee has indicated that the committee
may take "some" additional testimony on SB 205 at their hearing next week.
How much testimony, and whether the bill will be scheduled for a vote on
that day, is unknown at this time.  This extra testimony is, however, a
bright spot on the horizon, as it appears the public's concerns are finally
beginning to get a serious airing in the House.

If you care about this issue, the time to speak up is NOW. Because this bill
may be moved very fast, it makes sense to contact both the members of the
Committee and your own House member (if not on the committee). If you wish
to try to testify, contact Rep. Green's office (517) 373-0476 for
information about the hearing time, place and any limitations on opportunity
to testify.

Anne Woiwode
Sierra Club

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