This is not my story. This is what one of my real life friends, a fellow homeschool mom and her family, is going through, in a community just up the road from the now defunct Trailer Park Homestead. She's facing many of our worst fears and it is my hope that by posting this here for her, she will win the fight to be able to provide for her family the food they need. Meet the family of Jessica Hudson, in Williamstown Township, Michigan. You can keep updated on the developments of her Sweet Peas Farm and show your support on her Facebook page.
In the summer of 2012 we’d been looking for our dream house for a year. Our idea of a dream house was different from most others’. We wanted a small walkout ranch in the country. We wanted a backup heat source (wood), a southern exposure, and excellent insulation to reduce our dependency on outside energy sources. We wanted a few acres, with lots of trees for privacy, but plenty of unmanicured grass for pasture.
You see, we wanted a Homestead. We wanted to have a few goats for milk, some pigs for healthy pork, and some chickens for soy-free eggs. Why would this matter? Why, our 5 sick children, of course. Our children have a plethora of allergies, but the most problematic of them all are their food allergies.
Five years ago when I discovered the extent of their food restrictions I was brought to my knees. I’d lived 2 straight months on literally nothing but chicken breasts and butternut squash. Day in and day out, chicken, squash, salt, pepper, and water. Really try to imagine that.
It’s called a Total Elimination Diet. Ordinarily, this allows around 10 foods. But this wasn’t enough for my baby. He had reactions to even the least allergenic foods, like rice. I had to throw it all out. I did this so that my nursing baby could not only survive, but finally begin to thrive. He’d been screaming, sleeping no more than 15 minutes at a time, experiencing rashes, diarrhea, diaper rash, not gaining weight, not growing, throwing up, throwing up, and throwing up. And did I mention the screaming? And the missed sleep? The malnutrition and screaming baby put me through more than any other challenge in my life has.
I spent the next 3 years trying to find anyone that fed their animals “right.” Unfortunately, you can’t find it here. I did find soy-free eggs, in Colorado, at $10/dozen plus shipping. There was just no way. We had to do it ourselves. We came to want to do it ourselves.
After 3 accepted offers that went south, we found Our House. We put in the offer and I went home to call the township to make sure that our homesteading plans would be a go in the area. I was told that if we wanted large animals (I’m assuming cow?) we would need more than 2 acres, a horse required at least 5. I hung up the phone thrilled. The process, this time, went off without a hitch and in just a month we were signing on the dotted line.
We moved in on August 16th, 2012. That week I brought home 2 pot bellied piglets (pastured pork is extremely nutritious, and when not fed soy or corn can be very healthy for our allergic kids). 2 weeks later our shed was delivered, built, and filled with 8 chickens (soy and corn-free eggs! None of us reacted to eggs for the first time!). In early October we got 3 goats (goats milk was within sight! We were excited to say goodbye to the $8/gallon sheep milk bill, plus the hour-long drive to get it). We were on cloud nine. The kids and I worked together to build pens, build houses from free pallets, build chicken feeders and rabbit tractors. We hauled hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of hay and straw. We had a blast.
In November we got a certified letter. It was from the township. We were in violation of township zoning ordinances, which stated that farm animals were not allowed in our zone. We had to remove the farm animals within 10 days. Needless to say, I was more than a little confused. I went in to talk to someone in the office. Surely this was a mistake.
That meeting went like this: Nope, farm animals were not allowed. No, it’s impossible that you cleared it before buying the house, as nobody would have told you that farm animals were allowed here. No, I’m sorry it doesn’t matter that pot bellied pigs are considered a pet, or that your children are allergic, or mini goats are considered pets in many parts of the county, they are farm animals and must be removed. OH! Your children are in 4-H!? Ok, just write us a letter that says that, with a timeline for 4-H projects and it should be fine.
Wow…that was easy! So, I wrote the letter and hand-delivered it. I was met by the township supervisor, who told me that I had been mistakenly informed by the township representative the week before. Even if they are used for 4-H, farm animals are not allowed and they must be removed. WHAT? You mean someone in your office got it wrong?! But I was told last time that that was impossible!
I was then invited to come to the next township board meeting. At the meeting I could request that the board meet with the planning committee again regarding the zoning in our area and change things. You see, the city of Williamston, just 3 lots to the south of us, had just changed its ordinances, to allow any farm animal, including ostriches, cows and even horses! Being that agricultural zoning begins not even a half mile to the north of us, as well, they would have to be crazy not to revisit their plan, right?
So, I did some hard work. I wrote a letter outlining the extent of my children’s allergies, and just what I was looking for them to do; simply have a meeting and change some words on some papers. I spoke with each of my neighbors and asked them to sign a letter that said that they did not object to my family having farm animals. I showed them our plan, with specific numbers of each animal (no rooster, for instance), the length of time each animal would be where, our plans to be GAAMP compliant (more on this later), etc. I included all of this info with my letter to the board. I included a copy of the new city ordinance, information about Lansing’s efforts to allow urban goats in densely populated areas, and other cities, such as Denver, that had allowed such a thing and flourished for it. I bombarded them with information.
At this point I felt I had no choice. I contacted the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. This organization defends the rights of small farms, and I needed them to do this for me. Mr Pete Kennedy spoke with me at length, and described to me the Buchler case they had just won in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan that was nearly identical to mine. Essentially, if you are a farm, commercial in nature (meaning you sell something, anything, such as eggs or rabbits, or intend to do so, as is evident from signage or internet ads, like those for our rabbits) you are protected by the Right-to-Farm Act, which supersedes local zoning ordinances. We were protected. So, Pete sent a letter to the township informing them of such, along with the case law set by the Marquette family that had just spent years fighting their township.
Williamstown Township still refused to budge, and sent yet another letter informing us that we needed to remove the animals or face the consequences. However, they miraculously decided to make it an agenda item at their next meeting, after all. This meant that I could have the opportunity to speak again. I didn’t let this opportunity go to waste.
First, I asked all over Facebook for support. I asked people to come to the meeting, and fill the seats. I asked them to write letters of support for our farm and our purpose. I asked them to spread the word. And spread it they did. We got over 2,500 visitors to our farm page that day. People spread the word to their homesteading groups, gardening groups, their backyard chicken groups. They asked far and wide for letter writers. And I got nearly 100 people messaging me, showing their support and outrage, encouraging me to fight to my last breath for the very worthy cause of self-sustainability and small-scale agriculture. I felt empowered. It gave me the courage to call the news.
After my nerve-wracking interview with the 11:00 news I made my way to the meeting. They called my address and began talking about me as if I weren’t even there. The supervisor said they’d asked for a timeline for removal of the animals and hadn’t received one (because we have no intention of removing them!) and asked the other board members their opinions on what should be done next. The clerk piped up with “I think we should move forward”, presumably he meant moving forward to fining us. The supervisor then says “Well, there’s been some mention of right-to-farm. Maybe we should ask what that is” and they all looked to the trustee they consider their “ag guy”, Mr Imhoff. He said, somewhat apologetically, “From the information I have, they have to be in a district zoned agricultural for that to apply.” At this point they asked me if I would like to come up and say something. I absolutely did!
I said respectfully that that was categorically untrue; that we had only to be commercial in nature, which we were, to be covered by the MRTFA. I mentioned the Buchler case, and how they had been zoned residential, just like us. They had won, were protected by the MRTFA, and we were also. I told them that we were one step away from MAEAP verification, which I figured we would accomplish in the next couple of weeks. MAEAP verification shows that we are GAAMP compliant, meaning we’re making a minimal environmental impact, and we are certified as such by the USDA. I also mentioned that, in the Buchler case, the judge sided in their favor, and awarded them most of the $20,000 in legal fees. I asked them to consider one thing. They are obligated to do what's best for the community, and did they think that taking on over $20,000 in the defense’s legal fees was what was best for the community. I thanked them and sat down.
Since they had just been whining about their small, strained budget, I hoped that this would really make them think. They decided that it sounded like it was a case of who is right about the legality of the Right-to-Farm Act and they are referring it to their attorney. They will discuss it again at next month's meeting.
At this point I’m not sure what to think. It all comes down to how smart their attorney might be. I will be at the meeting next month, regardless. If anyone would like to join us the date, time and township hall address is below. If you’d like to send a letter of support on our behalf, regardless of where you live (this affects us all, folks!), please do! Bombard them with letters and phone calls! Spread the word to your friends and neighbors! Do whatever you can to let them know that we have the support of the world behind us, that this empowers us, and that we will not back down! And then pray that the FTCLDF will decide to take on our case, if it comes to court, because, being a low-income family with 5 children, there is no other way we could ever afford to move forward with this fight (and the township knows it)!
Please write or call:
4990 N. Zimmer Road,
Williamston, MI 48895-8180
Phone: (517) 655-3193
Township Supervisor Mickey Martin