MARQUETTE - The second and final day of testimony in a Marquette County Circuit Court civil trial between local farmers and Forsyth Township wrapped up Wednesday, with a number of witnesses testifying for the defense.
Judge Thomas Solka presided over the case, in which Randy and Libby Buchler, owners of Shady Grove Farm U.P. LLC, were sued by Forsyth Township over the location of their farm, just off Johnson Lake on Francis Mine Drive in Gwinn.
The crux of the case is whether the Buchlers are protected by the Michigan Right To Farm Act, which requires farms to meet a certain set of standards in order to fall under its purview, including being a commercial farm and following what the act calls "Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices."
Forsyth Township attorney Kevin Koch, standing, questions defendant Randy Buchler as Buchler’s attorney, Michelle Halley, looks on. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
One GAAMP in particular was singled out by Forsyth Township attorney Kevin Koch, the Site Selection and Odor Control for New Expanding Livestock Production Facilities GAAMP, which requires farm owners to take certain things - such as local zoning ordinances - into account when choosing where to establish their farming operation.
He said the Buchlers do not adhere to that GAAMP, since they did not take into account local zoning ordinances before choosing to start their farm on their property on Francis Mine Drive - an area zoned as Lake Residential, which does not allow for any type of agricultural activity.
"It's respectfully submitted that the facts clearly show that the Buchlers began their livestock operation without seeking compliance with the township zoning laws," Koch said during closing arguments. "When the scale of their farm included more than 50 chickens and even one sheep, they should have known that they were operating outside the local law, the zoning ordinance."
The Buchlers' attorney, Michelle Halley, argued that the Buchlers do not have to adhere to that GAAMP, as the GAAMP states that only farms with 50 animal units or more are required to follow it. A single animal unit equals 100 laying hens.
Halley, of Marquette, called several witnesses to demonstrate that the Buchlers sell eggs produced by the roughly 150 chickens on their farm, as well as products made from the wool of their eight sheep, thereby establishing Shady Grove Farm as a commercial business, another requirement of the RTFA in order to earn its protection.
"What matters here is whether the Buchlers' farm meets the definition of a farm. It does. And whether it's complying with the applicable GAAMPs. It does," Halley said during closing arguments. "Mr. Koch is trying to say that somehow, because the Buchlers didn't understand the zoning before they started farming, that somehow that has an impact on the law. It doesn't ... the zoning ordinance doesn't matter. That's a difficult situation for the township to be in, I understand that ... but that is the true statutory interpretation ... whether the courts liked it or not, that's what the legislation says."
The site selection GAAMP states that farms with less than 50 animal units may adhere to it. However, Koch said the Right to Farm Act states that any farm seeking its protection must adhere to the site selection GAAMP.
"A farming operation could be started with 4,999 chickens wherever, wherever, without regard to where it is going to be sited, under the defendants' theories, and we submit that that is simply not envisioned by the Right to Farm Act," Koch said during closing arguments.
Halley also called a number of the Buchlers' neighbors to testify as to the level of noise or odors emanating onto their property from the farm. All agreed there was very little impact, if any.
She also established that the Buchlers' farm was recently verified by Michigan's Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, which she says further proves the Buchlers are adhering to applicable Right to Farm GAAMPs, since the GAAMPs are used in the program's verification process.
Koch argued the GAAMPs are completely separate from the program.
Solka is expected to issue his decision on the case within 30 days.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.