Small Farmers say Michigan’s Efforts to Root Out Feral Pigs is Driven by Big Ag Interests
On Friday, April 20, the courthouse in the small town in Cheboygan, Michigan was unusually busy, brimming with representatives from the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the state’s Attorney General office. All told, more than 15 officials from the state of Michigan were present for a hearing over a surprisingly heated controversy. At issue: What type of pigs should Michigan residents be allowed to raise?
Photo by Sean McCann
Ron McKendrick, the owner of the Renegade Ranch, was in the courtroom to press his plea for a temporary restraining order against the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in enforcing an invasive species order that prohibits the raising of some kinds of hogs. The order, which went into effect April 1, sets out felony penalties for the possession of certain boars.
Michigan officials say that new rule is necessary to protect people and property from animals that can be a menace. Farmers like McKendrick and some restaurateurs say heritage breeds pigs are better suited to thriving in Michigan’s climate and have a richer and more complex taste. McKendrick and other farmers say the order is just a way for industrial hog-raising operations to eliminate competition from small farmers and ranchers. The Michigan conflict could have national implications, as other states are considering similar legislation.
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the invasive species order is needed to address a growing feral pig problem and associated issues like disease transmission and destruction of habitat for native Michigan species. Critics say the law has an overly broad definition of what constitutes a potentially dangerous pig. Rather than use genotype, (the genetic make up of a pig) as the determining factor in pig identification, the DNR instead chose to use phenotype — the expression of physical traits. A nine point system for identification includes use of one or more of the following characteristics: bristle-tip coloration, dark ‘point’ coloration, coat coloration, under-fur, striped coat patterns in juveniles, skeletal structure, straight tails, and erect ear structure. The ninth point grants the Michigan Department of Natural Resources great lassitude in future determinations:
“...Ongoing advancements in science may provide additional phenotypic or genotypic tools to aid in the identification of Sus scrofa. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources may use these tools as they become available.”
That vagueness, critics say, is why the bill really isn’t about ‘feral’ pigs at all.
Pete Kennedy is President of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. The organization, based out of Falls Church, VA, assists small farmers as they struggle against a tangle of agricultural regulations. Kennedy is leery of the Michigan invasive species order’s allies and motives.
“They’re jeopardizing the livelihoods of these people who breed heritage hogs,” he says. “This law can be interpreted any way they [Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources] want it to be. A domestic hog can now be a wild hog.”
Michigan State Senator Darwin Booher has become an outspoken critic of the feral pig rule, and has called on Governor Rick Snyder to rescind the invasive species order. On March 29, just before implementation, Senator Booher arranged a hearing before the State Senate Agricultural Committee to discuss the measure.
Mark Baker, owner of heritage pig breed farm Baker’s Green Acres, testified:
“It is impossible to genetically differentiate between swine, so the department decided certain pigs will be banned due to their appearance. The characteristics they outlined are ridiculous because all pigs have those traits. Honestly, the entire thing seems like a bad April Fool’s joke, but unfortunately for pig farmers like me, it’s not.”
The characteristics defined by the order are those favorable for a pig raised outside, a pig running about in the cold Michigan winter where underfur and hardiness are essential. These characteristics are unlikely to be much use, however, to swine raised in large farms indoors. For this reason, the law seems to favor industrial farms at the expense of smaller producers.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources defended the rule in a statement released in early April: “The Invasive Species Order is not an attack on farms. In fact, the order is intended to protect Michigan farms. The animals at issue are not traditional farm pigs...The owners of heritage pigs are not affected unless they own a Russian boar or Eurasian wild boar or a hybrid of a Russian boar or Eurasian wild boar.”
Sam Hines, Executive Vice President of the Michigan Pork Producers Association, also dismisses criticism of the order: “The other argument that some of those groups have put forth is that Big Ag and Michigan Pork Producers Association have conspired to eliminate the competition. It’s just ridiculous.”
Perhaps not a conspiracy, but the big players in Michigan’s agri-business seem to share a common interest in the invasive species order. In April 2011, the Agricultural Leaders of Michigan sent a letter to members of the state legislature, telling legislators that “Because of these serious and potentially devastating threats to Michigan Agriculture and tens of thousands of local jobs, we respectfully ask you let stand the state order classifying feral swine an invasive species and banning them from our state. Anything less would worsen the feral swine epidemic, putting Michigan agriculture, tens of thousands of jobs, and our state’s future at risk.”
The letter is signed by the Michigan Milk Producers Association, Michigan Allied Poultry Industries, Inc., Potato Growers of Michigan, Michigan Pork Producers Association, Michigan Agri-Business Association, and GreenStone Farm Credit Services. These interests continue to lobby on behalf of the invasive species order.
Though a move to delay implementation was voted down by the state senate, not all senators were moved by the agribusiness appeals. In March 2011, 16 state senators wrote a letter to state Governor Rick Snyder asking that he repeal the invasive species order. He declined to do so.
In the meantime, farmers like McKendrick fear they could be prosecuted. Just days after the hearing at the Cheboygan courthouse, inspectors from DNR visited McKendrick’s farm. They didn’t confiscate any of his heritage breed pigs. But the message was clear: the farmer is being watched.
Corey Hill is a human rights activist, community arts supporter, and freelance journalist. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.