They want to explore the world of sustainability, a place where food comes from its source and not from a grocery store display.
The Grand Haven Township family of four lives tranquilly among two goats that provide milk, chickens that lay eggs for their breakfast and pigs that will become their bacon, pork chops and sausage this fall. They grow lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and peppers. They share meat, milk, eggs and fresh produce with friends and neighbors.
Derek and Colleen, who are both teachers in the Grand Haven school district, often invite classes to their little family farm to learn about their sustainable lifestyle. It’s a life they’ve built and desired ever since they bought a foreclosed home on 8 acres off Buchanan Street in Grand Haven Township.
But because of recent changes in state law that put their farm operations solely under local law, their lifestyle may be uprooted.
“They’re not in compliance,” said Grand Haven Township Manager Bill Cargo. “What they are doing right now is outside what is allowed by zoning.”
Cargo has visited the Warner farm and says the family is conscientious and does a good job managing their manure and other farm intricacies, and he’s not fielding complaints from neighbors.
In recent years, Michigan’s Right to Farm act left some gray areas for municipalities and small-scale farmers, according to Cargo.
Even though the township has ordinances that require 20 acres for the amount of livestock the Warners keep, state law always trumps local legislation. But when the state clarified the law recently, Cargo said it made it clear the Warner Family Farm is out of sync with statute.
“I made it very clear to Mr. Warner that we wouldn’t take any enforcement that would impact their current growing season,” Cargo said. “We’re using this as an opportunity. The township Planning Commission is going to be looking at what level of intensity should be allowed in residential areas. Currently, locations that are primarily residential do not allow agriculture uses by right.”
The Warner property is zoned rural-residential. With a special land use permit, according to Cargo, they could have “a few horses and chickens for their own egg-growing or meat purposes — but we’re talking less than half a dozen. Right now, he’s way over what is allowed by intensity.”
That’s a rule the Warners hope township leaders will see fit to change. They’re hosting a community informational forum from 6-8 p.m. Monday at their farm, 17082 Buchanan St., west of U.S. 31.
Colleen said they’ve invited township officials and staff, and are encouraging the public to attend to learn about sustainable lifestyles and the threat from recent law changes.
“Partly why we’re doing the open community forum is to educate people about what’s going on at the state level and how it has affected families trying to feed families,” she said. “We’re not going to feed the world with what we produce here, but we feed a lot of families with what we produce here on our small piece of land.”
Cargo said he is uncertain about other township leaders, but he will not be attending the forum.
“I don’t want to imply by my being there that I’m in support of what they’re doing,” he explained. “We know they’re in violation of the rules. We know they have good intentions. I could give them a ticket today, but we’re not just going in and saying, ‘You’re in violation and we’re going to take you to court right now.’
“We’re taking what I would consider to be a very moderate and rational approach. The Planning Commission will explore this.”
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