Not In My Back Forty – When Farmers and Neighbors Clash

A farmer I know, let’s call him John, is up late tonight in his orchard. As a Leelanau County farmer, his work requires vigilance. It’s been a wet summer so far, and that means there’s a virtual laboratory of bugs, molds, and fungi waiting to threaten his way of life.  Tonight, reluctantly, he sprays an insecticide to head off the codling moth hatch that’s sure to devastate his orchards.

There’s a break in the rain, and John’s training tells him he’s got the opening he needs. The wind dies down at night too, making it a lot less likely that what he’s spraying will end up on unintended fields. All of this information points to the fact that now is the time. John decides to follow this lead and get to work, but it happens to be midnight.

Spraying is a messy and noisy matter. It’s not much fun for either the farmer or anyone else close by, and this is the challenge that John meets. Tonight, the sound of his tractor and its spray pumps awaken a nearby neighbor, and at about 1:30 AM lights come on and blood boils.  Suddenly, someone is standing at the edge of John’s field waving his arms and yelling. It sounds something like this:

“What the @#$%&! are you doing, running that equipment this late at night?” says the neighbor.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get this done, and my window is now,” responds John, the farmer.

“We can’t sleep,” says the neighbor.

“Look, man, this is my shot. If I don’t spray tonight, I chance to lose my entire crop,” Johns says.

At this point, the man utters another argument plucked from state law or the local zoning ordinance, and that’s when John’s frustration finds its edge. He explodes with his own expletives, and the field is alight with anger once more.

Eventually, some common ground is found, a bit of learning happens, and the altercation ends with a handshake. The neighbor gets back in his truck, and John mounts his tractor, hoping he’s got time to finish his work before dawn.

Unfortunately, this scene is one that’s repeated wherever development pressures push up against a historically agricultural community.  People who’ve paid a lot of money for their retirement home or vacation getaway don’t like the intrusion that sharing a zip code with fruit-belt farming affords. Farmers, on the other hand, want newer property owners to understand their historical place on the land and their promised right to farm. Skyrocketing rural land values only help to exacerbate this tension.

We live in a spectacular region, one that is verdant with the fruits of the Earth. As we move into the middle of farm production season, let’s remember that it is our responsibility to honor and respect those who work this land that surrounds us. Next time you feel the urge to complain to your neighboring farmer about noises, or smells, or other burdens of a convenient life, first ask yourself which one of you is truly caring for the land and concerned with nourishing others. A wave from the comfort of your truck, or the respectful tipping of a well-worn feed cap, might be a better solution for all of us.

This article was originally published in the July 8, 2017 edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle as part of the Agricultural Forum.

For reference: Information on Michigan’s Right to Farm laws, via MDARD.

And from: The National Agricultural Law Center.

Bill Palladino is the CEO of Taste the Local Difference. Contact him at [email protected].