MARQUETTE - As families around the area fine tune their Thanksgiving grocery lists, one Gwinn farmer and his family are preparing themselves for a battle in Marquette County Circuit Court.
The trial, set to begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday, centers around one issue: Do Randy and Libby Buchler - owners of Shady Grove Farm U.P. LLC - have a right to farm their land as they see fit, or does the township have a right to tell them on what land farming is acceptable or unacceptable?
The township says the Buchlers' farm is in violation of its zoning designation - Lakefront Residential - which does not allow for any type of farming activity.
Randy Buchler holds a chicken on his farm in Gwinn. The Buchlers have become embroiled in a legal battle with Forsyth Township over the location of their farm, Shady Grove Farm U.P. LLC. The civil matter is set for trial this week in Marquette County Circuit Court. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
"The argument is whether or not the Right to Farm Act is going to totally displace any considerations of zoning," said Forsyth Township attorney Kevin Koch. "(Farming) is certainly an activity that the township is favorable towards, but has real concerns when it is placed in the middle of the most lucrative tax district in the township."
The Buchlers say their small farm is protected by the Michigan Right to Farm Act, arguing that the law supercedes any local zoning ordinance.
"Our essential argument is that the Buchlers' farming activities are protected by the Michigan Right to Farm Act and that the state statute overrides the local ordinance according to the language of the statute," said Marquette attorney Michelle Halley, who is the Buchlers' lead counsel in the case.
The dispute began in 2009, when the township received a complaint about the Buchlers' farm and sent the family a letter notifying them their agricultural activities were in violation of the zoning ordinance.
The Buchlers live on their farm, just off the shores of Johnson Lake on Francis Mine Drive in Gwinn.
They started a garden in 2002 and began raising a small flock of chickens in 2004. In 2008, they added five Shetland sheep, using them to make wool products. Over the years, they continued to grow their flock to its present size of around 100 chickens and nine sheep, all of which are fed organically.
The Buchlers have continued to raise chickens and sheep throughout the dispute, selling their products locally.
After receiving the initial letter, the Buchlers and the township made several attempts to reach a compromise on the issue, but no agreement could be made.
In court, the Buchlers will be represented by Halley and Stephen Bemis of Ann Arbor. The case has garnered some national attention, with the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund offering to pay the Buchlers' legal fees.
Koch said much of the dispute will be based on what the Right to Farm Act describes as Generally Acceptable Agricultural and Management Practices, which are guidelines for farms to follow in order to earn the protection of the Right to Farm Act.
Koch said he believes the Buchlers did not follow the GAAMPS that relate to site selection and odor control.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program recently recognized Shady Grove Farm as a verified farm in the Cropping, Livestock and Farmstead Systems for implementing appropriate pollution prevention practices. The program assists farmers to comply with state and federal environmental regulations and with Right to Farm practices.
Halley said the designation further proves that the Buchlers are in compliance with GAAMPS outlined in the Right to Farm Act.
She said the case, though simply involving a small farm and a small township in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, could have statewide implications.
"The outcome of this case could define the reach of the Right to Farm Act across the state," Halley said.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.