MARQUETTE - After a nearly three-year dispute, a Forsyth Township family farm and the township are headed to Marquette County Circuit Court.
According to Forsyth Township's attorney Kevin Koch, the location of Shady Grove Farm, U.P., LLC, is a violation of a township zoning ordinance.
Randy and Libby Buchler, owners of Shady Grove, said they believe their small farm is protected by the Michigan Right to Farm Act.
Chickens wander around at Shady Grove Farm in Forsyth Township earlier this week. The farm, owned by Randy Buchler, shown in top photo with one of his chickens, and his wife Libby, is at the center of a court case related to the Michigan Right to Farm Act. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
In the complaint filed with the court, the township is asking for a court order for the Buchlers to "cease such zoning violation and remove all sheep, chickens and other livestock from said property immediately."
The family's home and farm - located on Francis Mine Drive - is zoned as "Lake Residential," a designation that does not include a provision allowing any type of agricultural activity.
In 2009, the township sent the Buchlers a letter informing them of the zoning violation after it received a complaint about the agricultural activities taking place at Shady Grove.
The Buchlers said they had been farming the land for several years prior to the initial complaint. They started a garden in 2002 and began raising a small flock of chickens in 2004. In 2008, they said they added five Shetland sheep, using them to make wool products.
Over the years, they expanded their livestock to now include about 100 chickens and nine sheep, all of which are fed organically.
They sell eggs to the Marquette Food Co-op and Libby Buchler has been the market manager for the Gwinn Farmers Market, which the couple helped start, for the past two years.
"We were shocked," Randy Buchler said of the initial complaint. "But then, the thought was, 'How can we work with the township to make this work?' "
Three years of back-and-forth negotiations between the Buchlers and the township ensued. They sent each other letters, met during township meetings and even attempted to reach a compromise through the use of a special exception from the ordinance, but could not settle the issue.
In court, the Buchlers said they will argue their farming activities are protected by the Michigan Right to Farm Act, a law that helps protect farms from being labeled as a public nuisance and shut down.
The township's attorney said he will argue that act does not apply in this case.
"The timing is most critical. If someone moves next to a hog farm that's in operation legitimately and complains about it, that's the type of practice the Right to Farm Act was intended to discourage," Koch said. "When someone moves into an area where their agricultural practice is not allowed and then says, 'I have the right to farm, despite zoning,' that creates an issue."
Koch said the township has no problem with family farms, but does have a problem with the location of the Buchlers' farm.
"What they're trying to do has never been criticized, it's just where they're trying to do it," Koch said. "It's in a Lake Residential district, which is the most lucrative district in terms of tax, and there is simply no provision in the zoning for that (type of activity)."
The Buchlers aren't the only ones who believe the Right to Farm Act protects them - the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund supports their efforts, and the organization is paying for the Buchlers to be represented by Ann Arbor attorney Stephen Bemis and Marquette attorney Michelle Halley.
Bemis said because the case is still pending, he did not want to discuss it. He and Halley will file their response to the claim next week, after which a scheduling conference will take place.
"I don't want to go into details for pending litigation," Bemis said. "We're confident that (the Michigan Right to Farm Act) applies."
The Buchlers have continued to raise chickens and sheep throughout the dispute, selling their products locally, including in the Gwinn Farmers Market.
However, this year, a new farmers market is being organized that will not be associated with the township.
Forsyth Township Supervisor Joe Minelli sent Libby Buchler a letter dated April 27 informing her she would no longer be the market master for the Gwinn Farmers Market and that they would be advertising the position for the 2012 season.
Because of this, the Buchlers said they decided to cut ties with the township as it relates to the farmers market.
This year, the Buchlers are organizing a market of their own, which is slated to take place at the old Gwinn Middle School.
Libby Buchler will be the market master there. She said she was never told why she was not asked to return to the position, and that the situation is unfortunate.
"I wish they would let us be," she said. "The food we put in our bodies, most of what we eat comes from what we grow."
A phone call for comment to Minelli was not returned.
Koch said it was important for the township to continue hosting a farmers market, and that it is planning to continue to have its market just as it has in years past.
"It is important to keep the farmers market going. I hope that (the Buchlers) will remain involved," Koch said. "That interest should supersede any kind of a fight between the parties, in my opinion."
The Buchlers live on Shady Grove Farm with their two children, 11-year-old Hala and 7-year-old Teyan, in a house off Francis Lake that's been in Libby's family since the 1940s. The couple chose to make it their home after returning to Michigan in 2001.
The couple said living a sustainable lifestyle has always been important to them, so extending that idea to members of their community by selling local food and local products was, for them, a natural next step.
"We want to raise our kids in a way that will not only benefit them and their families but the communities they choose to live in," Randy Buchler said.
Both of them said they hope the court allows them to keep running their farm.
"I hope we get to continue providing our family and community with food, and hopefully there are some policy changes to allow for more liberal agricultural practices," Randy Buchler said.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.