Michigan's Right to Farm Act (RTFA) was originally enacted in 1981, with a goal of protecting traditional farmers from nuisance lawsuits that became prevalent as some farm land was developed into neighborhoods, and began to be filled with people unaccustomed to living in rural areas.
To understand current issues around RTF in Michigan, the most important thing to understand is that since 1981, the Right to Farm Act has been amended three times, for a range of purposes that had little to do with its original intent. The most recent amendment was in 1999, and made a significant change to the law that may be unique to Right to Farm laws across the 50 states: it explicitly removed the ability of local governments to take legal action against any farming operation that meets the requirements of RTF protection:
Beginning June 1, 2000, except as otherwise provided in this section, it is the express legislative intent that this act preempt any local ordinance, regulation, or resolution that purports to extend or revise in any manner the provisions of this act or generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under this act. Except as otherwise provided in this section, a local unit of government shall not enact, maintain, or enforce an ordinance, regulation, or resolution that conflicts in any manner with this act or generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed under this act.
Thus after 1999, farming operations that are compliant with RTF provisions are not only protected from nuisance lawsuits against them by their neighbors, but are also protected from all types of local regulatory control. Note that there are no qualifiers in the law to provide these rights only to citizens in rural areas, or only to citizens with properties of a certain size. Instead, these provisions apply to every Michigan citizen who meets the requirements of the Right to Farm Act, regardless of place or size.
This is the part of the history of the law that is required to understand current issues around RTF protection for urban agriculture in Michigan. For those interested in understanding more about the law itself, the following sections provide both the conventional history of RTF in Michigan, as well as the less often told story of how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) played a role in extending corporate agricultural interests across the states, using Right to Farm laws.
The Legislative Language of the Right To Farm Law 1981 - 1999
First, let's get the actual language of the original law, as well as the actual language of each of the amendments, on the table. Michigan's Right to Farm Law was originally passed in 1981, and amended in 1987, 1995, and 1999. At each of these junctures some language was added and some deleted. Those changes are not obvious when reading the current version of the law, but understanding the statutory history of RTF in Michigan requires the actual language passed by the Michigan legislature each time it was changed. Those documents are here:
Current version: Michigan Right to Farm Law
1999 Amendment: 1999 (Michigan Public Act 261)
1995 Amendment: 1995 (Michigan Public Act 94)
1987 Amendment: 1987 (Michigan Public Act 240)
1981 Original Law: 1981 (Michigan Public Act 93)
I personally find it difficult to follow the changes looking only at each of these individual documents, so I assembled them all into a single excel file. The law is organized in three major sections: Definitions, Farm or Farm Operation as a Public or Private Nuisance, and Application of State and Federal Statutes. I think of these sections as defining who the RTF law is for (definitions), what it protects against (nuisance lawsuits, for example), and how this law sits relative to other laws that may not be consistent with it (application of other statutes). I then color-coded each of these sections so I could see visually which section changed in each of the amendments; this device turned out to be very useful in demonstrating the huge structural change to the law that occurred in 1999, when a previously small part of the law (application of other statutes) that stated that RTF does not interfere with other statutes in 12 words, became many paragraphs asserting that RTF supercedes local ordinances, among other things. This part of the law is in blue in the RTF - Structure of the Law and its Amendments file, and because it is color-coded, a simple visual scan shows the significant structural changes that occurred in Michigan's Right to Farm law in 1999.
The Public History of the 1999 Right to Farm Amendment
In the summer and fall of 2012, as issues of Right to Farm protection for urban agriculture began to be raised to the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development, Commissioner Coe reminded fellow commissioners of the history of the 1999 amendment, and especially of the role that Senator George A. McManus played in the passage of that amendment, through the work of the 1999 Senate Agricultural Preservation Task Force. That document is below, as well as documentation of the actual debate on the senate and house floor before passage of the bill. You can also read the opinion of the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Sierra Club, and scholars from MSU at the time that the 1999 amendment passed:
The report from the task force that started it all: 1999 Senate Agricultural Preservation Task Force Report
The house debate before the vote: an extensive debate on December 9th, 1999
Support for the 1999 amendment by the Michigan Farm Bureau: S.B. 205 Passes
Opposition to the 1999 amendment by the Sierra Club: E-M:/ SB 205 passes Senate Ag Com
What the Scholars said in 1999: MRTFA and GAAMPS after the 1999 Amendment
The Less Told History of Right to Farm Across the States
The documents above describe the public history and debate around RTF in Michigan. There are, however, another set of facts that reveal that Right to Farm legislation is coordinated across the states by a corporate-backed organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council - ALEC - which had a goal of industrializing food production in the United States by the establishment of factory farms and associated food processing industries. To accomplish this efficiently, however, these corporations require relief from the kinds of nuisance lawsuits that are commonly filed against industrial-scale food operations. ALEC's strategy for getting such relief was to write a model RTF amendment that would give them the protection they required, and then to persuade state legislators to introduce and pass their model amendment in state legislatures across the country. Michigan was one of the many states that complied.
The 1996 ALEC Model Right To Farm Amendment from ALEC EXPOSED
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Governor of Michigan at the time was John Engler, and who ALEC states was involved in the organization in its 'formative years': http://www.alec.org/about-alec/history/
Most recently ALEC has undergone public scrutiny as a result of its promotion of 'Stand Your Ground' legislation that resulted in the slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/18/us/trayvon-martin-death-spurs-group-to-readjust-policy-focus.html