The Small Farm Vote in 2014

Mark Baker and his family have been fighting the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for over two years to regain their right to grow and sell heritage pigs in Michigan.  

In 2011 the DNR issued an amendment to an Invasive Species Order (ISO) to define most kinds of pigs as invasive species in Michigan, thereby making them illegal.  Mark Baker filed a complaint against the DNR to regain his legal right to raise his pigs, but just before the case was to be heard, the DNR reversed course and told the judge that Mark Baker was now compliant since he had culled one Russian sow.  As a result, since a conflict between the DNR and Mark Baker apparently no longer exists, Judge Fagerman dismissed the case February 26th, 2014 .

This court case was important not only to ensure that Mark Baker could continue his heritage pig operation, but also to ensure that the DNR could not use its authority to make raising the kinds of pigs that can survive Michigan winters illegal in Michigan.  By redefining the Baker pigs as suddenly compliant with the ISO, the DNR ensured the dismissal of the case and robbed the Bakers of the opportunity to make their case, without making any change to the ISO itself.  

Mark Baker has a Plan B and that is to release a movie filmed by Kyle Miron called Hogwash: The American Pig Tale, that tells the story of what his family had endured over the past two years.  But producing a movie isn't free, and Mark has asked those who support his efforts to pre-purchase a DVD of the movie so it can be completed and made public before the 2014 elections.  

It is those 2014 elections that I want to talk about here.

It should now be clear that in 2014 there are already hundreds of people in Michigan who are fighting to protect their simple right to participate in agriculture and grow food. In addition to the DNR ISO that has so plagued small hog operations, there are, of course, MDARD's proposed changes to the 2014 Site Selection GAAMPs.

One connection between the changes to the ISO and the changes to the GAAMPS is that both affect small farmers - in general, it is small pig farmers in rural  areas that are affected by the ISO, and small farmers of all kinds, in rural and urban areas, that are affected by the proposed changes to GAAMPs.  Another connection is that Keith Creagh was the Director of MDARD in late 2011 when this type of anti-agricultural GAAMPs language was first invented, and Keith Creagh is now the Director of the DNR, where he has attempted to enforce the ISO against the Mark Baker.  And there is one more connection, of course.  Each of these unprecedented assaults against small farmers in Michigan happened after Rick Snyder was elected Governor in 2010, and assumed office in January 2011.

Since we are now again in an election year it seems fair to think about how small farmers will respond, and even whether that response could affect the outcome of elections in 2014.  There are already signs that the actions by MDARD and the DNR could become problematic for the current Republican administration.  During the public comments on the 2014 GAAMPs, for example, 684 Michigan residents wrote in opposition to those changes within a very limited, 2-week period.  This was easily the largest response that MDARD has ever received in a public comment period on the GAAMPs, and is an indication of how seriously small farmers in Michigan are taking this issue.  Unfortunately, the Commission of Agriculture gave no indication during their February meeting that they were influenced by the hundreds of people who reached out to them, and instead appear poised to approve the proposed changes at their next meeting on March 20th.

Meanwhile, small farmers aware of what is happening to Mark Baker are also engaging in the political process.  I traveled to Marion, Michigan last summer for a previous Baker court hearing, and was witness to a standing-room only courtroom crowd, filled with 200 or more people who were polite but determined that the events unfolding around Mark Baker would not go unopposed; this is all the more remarkable, because rural Michigan is normally Republican, and the policies being objected to are those of a Republican administration.  How will those folks vote in 2014?  And If Mark Baker gets his Hogwash movie into the hands of the public before the election, as planned, how many more small farmers will withhold their vote from the traditional Republican party, and look elsewhere?

In most years it would seem impossible that small farmers in Michigan would turn away from their commitment to the Republican party.  But this year feels different, as hundreds of farmers have already shown that they are aware of the changes in state policies that impede small farm efforts in Michigan, and that they are willing to write letters and attend court hearings to oppose those new policies.  Will small farmers also take their opposition to the policies of MDARD and the DNR, under the Snyder administration, to the voting booth in November?  

Only time will tell.