Michigan MDARD’s Farewell Present to Mark Baker

This past June heritage breed hog farmer Mark Baker announced that he was getting out of commercial farming and would be moving to a smaller farm where he and his family would continue to grow their own food. After a four-year battle with the state of Michigan over his challenge to an Invasive Species Order (ISO) on feral hogs, Baker had grown tired of dealing with state agencies and an unfavorable regulatory climate and was ready to move on to homesteading. Little did he know that the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) was going to give him a final reminder of why he wanted out of commercial farming.

Baker operates a custom slaughterhouse on his farm in Missaukee County, mainly slaughtering and processing chickens for some 200 families in his community. He also has a permit from MDARD enabling him to sell chicken and pork raised on his farm and each year pays a renewal fee for the permit. His plan was to keep the permit and continue sales of pork and chicken until he sold the farm.

In July Baker received a letter from MDARD stating that he was being denied a permit to conduct his custom slaughter business because he hadn’t paid his renewal fee. When Baker’s wife Jill produced the canceled check showing he had paid, the department changed its story, now claiming it was denying the permit because Baker refused to let MDARD officials conduct an inspection of his farm during a December 2015 raid of his farm, Baker’s Green Acres (BGA). MDARD had obtained a warrant to search the farm; someone contacted the department to notify it that there was a picture in a magazine story of a chef holding a ham that the story said was produced by BGA. MDARD wanted to search Baker’s premises to make sure the meat he was selling was slaughtered and processed at a USDA facility.

Baker responded to this latest accusation by explaining that he hadn’t refused an inspection but had only asked the inspectors to wait until some friends of his arrived at the farm to observe the proceedings. The inspectors decided to leave rather than wait.

On August 5 MDARD relented and renewed Baker’s permit; before the renewal, an official from the department called a farmer who relied heavily on Baker’s establishment for her meat sales and told her that she couldn’t use the facility at BGA because it wasn’t permitted.

The harassment from MDARD over the permit convinced Baker to move his timetable up on his sales of chicken and pork; on August 27 Baker decided to surrender his permit saying that MDARD’s jurisdiction over his business was like a forced partnership that he no longer wanted to have. It’s the kind of partnership where the farmer supplies the labor and innovation and MDARD supplies the red tape.

Baker said that regulation by MDARD is not about food safety but control; a belief many others hold. He pointed out that bureaucrats should not be able to use their influence to pick winners and losers. He said that he was no longer going to put his family through MDARD’s harassment.

The MDARD permit denial of BGA was retribution for Baker’s successful challenge to the ISO on feral swine issued by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in December 2010. The ISO, which had the strong backing of the Michigan Pork Producers Association prohibited the possession of a number of breeds of swine. When asked to clarify what the ISO meant, DNR issued a declaratory ruling establishing that whether a pig violated the ISO was not going to be determined by whether the pig was living in the wild or outside containment but rather on its physical characteristics. According to the declaratory ruling, a pig could be prohibited if it has either “curly or straight tail structure” or “either erect or folded/floppy ear structure.”

Baker, who was raising heritage breed mangalitsa pigs, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ISO in April 2012. DNR, through the state attorney general, responded to the lawsuit by filing a countersuit of its own, seeking to have Baker’s pigs condemned and destroyed for violating the ISO. Later, after Baker became publicly critical of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for his handling of the case, DNR amended its complaint and sought a court order fining Baker $700,000–$10,000 for each pig Baker owned that it claimed was illegal.

Just weeks before the case was to go to trail, DNR changed its position on Baker’s pigs, now saying they were legal; this shift by the agency resulted in the dismissal of both Baker’s lawsuit and DNR’s countersuit in February 2014. DNR officials did not want the case to go to trial because they knew Baker would expose the declaratory ruling for the sham that it was. DNR subsequently withdrew the declaratory ruling but the ISO is still on the books to this day. As Baker has said many times, there is no evidence that there is a feral swine problem in Michigan.

Even though the focus has been more on DNR and the Michigan Pork Producers Association, MDARD was right in the middle of the creation of the ISO. Nancy Frank, state veterinarian in MDARD’s Division of Animal Industry, had a major role in the creation of the order. MDARD was also responsible for significant losses in Baker’s business because he stood up to the state. Shortly after Baker filed his lawsuit, MDARD employees started contacting restaurants purchasing pork and other products from Baker intimidating them into dropping their business with the farmer; Baker lost almost all of his restaurant accounts. MDARD also worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inform slaughterhouses not to process feral swine, effectively limiting Baker’s access to those facilities.

Food produced at Baker’s Green Acres has never been accused of making anyone sick.

Baker and his family have paid the price for his successful challenge to government and industry’s attempt to create the conditions for cutting out the market share for heritage breed hog farmers. MDARD’s latest harassment was one final message to the farmer that it’s time to move on.

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