Richland Township farm’s goats and greenhouse not protected by Right to Farm Act

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RICHLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. – A farm in Richland Township is being told to pack up its greenhouse and livestock, despite its popularity, after a judge ruled they are not protected by the Right to Farm Act.

Jim Nieuwenhuis and his nephew Ben Martin are well-known in the Richland area for their fresh produce and local goat meat. However, the underlying issue is that they are operating a farm smaller than five acres that has livestock and an installed “hoop-house” or greenhouse. According to court documents, their farm set-up violates a Richland Township zoning ordinance.

Martin told FOX 17 that he is passionate about farming on his Uncle Jim’s 3.3 acre farm. He plucked a tomato off a bush in the hoop-house while he said they grow to be much higher quality there than the nearby field.

"We've been picking tomatoes from the high tunnel for a few weeks now,” said Martin. “Disease resistance in the high tunnel compared to the field, it's just a night and day difference. We’re not even sure if we’ll make our money back from the tomatoes in the field.”

The trouble started about a year ago, when he and his uncle applied for, and then did not receive, a special exception use permit to install the hoop-house. When they built it anyway, Richland Township officials said neighbors complained.

As of Aug. 15, Judge Kropf at the 8th district court ruled that the farm violates a zoning ordinance for having too many “accessory buildings” and livestock on land less than five acres.

"We are a commercial operation; we sell the goat meat locally,” said Martin. “In the Right to Farm Act, of course if we were protected by that, there's no minimum acreage for a parcel."

Township officials told FOX 17 the court fined the farm $400 and ordered them to remove their goats and hoop-house. Martin holds firmly that they should be protected by the Right to Farm Act.

However, court documents show the farm’s cropping system has been verified under the Michigan Agriculture Environment Assurance Program (MAEAP), but it does not have its Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPS) certification. Effectively, their farm is not protected under the Right to Farm Act.

"With our MEAEP verification we have an outline of what we need to do here at this farm, and what we need to be in compliance with GAAMPS,” said Martin. “So we've already met that criteria it's just up to somebody to come and verify that we've done that."

As of the ruling Aug. 15, Martin and his uncle have 28 days to appeal the decision. Martin said they plan to continue farming.

"I think we're going to fight for what we believe in,” said Martin. “Right now we're going to keep on trucking with it."

Richland Township officials told FOX 17 that it is not their goal to drive this farming family from town; they just want them to follow the rules.

Martin said their farm’s GAAMPS inspection is scheduled for Wednesday Aug. 27; if it passes, Township officials said Judge Kropf may revisit the ruling.

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  • Faye Ann Bristol

    Small farmer fighting government rules again. Why do they make it so difficult for a small, successful farmer to succeed?

  • Debbie

    I hope they appeal it. Sometimes it takes a higher court to hand down the proper ruling, mostly due to small town politics. The neighbor who complained is probably friends with the judge and pulled in a favor. We just went through something similar with the local courts, took it higher and won. It small town business as usual and a Good Ol’ Boys network. Shame on them the judge for this ruling.

  • Shaun Seaman

    The issue is the people surrounding them probably don’t like hearing the goats. Its sad to see that people are losing their freedom of working and making a living due to other people issues.

  • Ann Bylsma Pennington

    And the government wonders why people are feed up. This is AMERICA. WTF, we can’t even provide for our families on our own land? It is high time we start standing up for our freedoms. Forget the wars in other countries, we have our own war right here!!

  • Teri

    This is baloney. THat farm has been there over 100 years. People should not be allowed to build next to a farm, zoned as a farm, and then dictate that it can no longer be a farm. I have a farm behind me. So the township is saying that, if my neighbors and I got together and complained about the noise, dust, smells and chemicals, we could make them stop farming it? This is EXACTLY what the RTF act is supposed to protect!

    • Faye Ann Bristol

      We live in a fruit farming area and it is handed down through the generations. Anyone moving in here has to respect the hard work of these farmers and protect their farming rights to continue the heritage of their forefathers. The resulting processing facilities in this area employ many others. When government interferes, it results in more unemployment in related businesses.

  • Jason Dillon

    Wow this one hit close to home. I know right where this farm is and they are by NO means bothering or negatively impacting their surroundings at all, in fact, this farm is located on a DIRT ROAD and was the original farm to the entire area!! Over the years it has sold off land to the surrounding houses, which are now turning against them. These municipalities need to get with the times and understand that the acre after acre mega farm isn’t the only way to farm anymore. Small farms like these are way better at utilizing what little land they are working on and the municipalities need to make the responsible edits to their regulations to allow for this. Ahhh, the age old trick by townships, villages and cities….the “complaining neighbor”; allowing municipalities to go after businesses and residents for years and years! It’s sustainable living people and if you live in the country you have no place to complain about your neighbor and his greenhouse full of tomatoes!! Great communities will ask “how can we make this work” whereas the dysfunctional ones just say “no” to everything that doesn’t follow the book to a T.

    I can say with utter disgust, from sitting on many municipal boards currently and in the past, that a township, city or village that simply says “no” just doesn’t care. A board is meant to “interpret” the ordinances and zoning, to be as beneficial to their community while still holding to a set of rules and regulations. They make those rules and regulations and they can certainly re-visit them if they are deemed outdated or perhaps not working as well as they used to because of numerous different aspects. I have been on boards that are very successful at making the right decisions on subjects such as these far sooner than requiring the courts to get involved AND for far less money. To come to a mutually beneficial determination would cost the township taxpayers far less money and if was a taxpayer, I’d be raising hell. I mean look, I don’t live in Richland Township (I’m in Charleston Township) and I’m trying to raise hell! haha

    If I’m not mistaken a hoop house isn’t “attached” to the ground, so it should be a temporary, seasonal structure that doesn’t fall within an “out building” zoning anyways. Best of luck to you, fight the good fight and hopefully a morally correct decision will be made, otherwise, we all stand to loose our farms, no matter the size.

    • Peggy Whipple

      they don’t have a problem with farming they just don’t want it if it’s gonna harm one of the good ole boys, and it seems to me if the farm was already established as a farm it should be grandfathered in.

  • Patricia Kay DeDoes

    This is so STUPID !!! Has anyone considered changing the rules ? Cannot believe this holds up to any kind of logic tp anyone……..Could it be said that city people have no idea how the food gets to their table? Dysfunctional does seem to be pretty accurate !!! Shame on the judge is right !!!

  • Ken Ridenour

    Jim n Ben are great people who do what they need to to survive
    I have sold the produce Ben grows at a local grocery store
    It is hands down some of the best tomatoes peppers jalapeños that I have sold in the last couple years
    Keep fighting don’t ever give up

  • Sharon Hazel-Bowker

    I hope you can keep on fighting. As stated above this has been a farm for over 100 years and unfortunate that it has been reduced down to under five acres. I would rather have a neighbor with goats and a hoop house that is so much improved from what it looked like for so many years than whining neighbors that complain about every action that takes place on my property. I live very close to a very large farm operation and I have no complaints about my farming neighbors.

  • anne

    really… I am all for farmers love my fresh produce I support all farmers no matter their size…. but… they applied for the special permit, didnt’ get it, so decided to build anyway!! Maybe they should fight it before they build!!