Is it lawful to own a pig in Michigan?

April 13, 2012 | By JENNIFER THOMPSON

It depends what the pig looks like.  The Michigan Department of Natural Resources, a state administrative agency, has decided that certain breeds of swine must be eradicated in order to “stop the spread of feral swine and the disease risk they pose to humans, domestic pigs, and wildlife.”  The problem is that, rather than focus on feral swine—the alleged source of the problem—the Department has issued an interpretive ruling so broad that any pig could qualify for destruction, including domestic farm animals.

Whether a pig is prohibited or not depends on eight physical characteristics, including the coloration of its bristles, coat coloration, underfur coloration, skeletal appearance, ear structure and “other characteristics not currently known to the [Department] that are identified by the scientific community.”  Rather than clarify the scope of this order, the Department has told individual farmers to bring in pictures of their pigs so the Department can decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether a pig must be destroyed.  And any farmer found to possess a prohibited pig is subject to a felony conviction, two years in jail, and $20,000 in fines.

Mark Baker, an air force veteran and the owner of Bakers Green Acres Farm, filed a lawsuit challenging the Department’s order.  Baker raises specific heritage breeds of hogs which he has chosen because they can withstand Michigan’s cold winters and because they are prized for their reddish-meat and high fat content by chefs and other gourmet food consumers.  Now, because those breeds exhibit characteristics on the Department’s list, his entire operation is likely illegal under Michigan law; he expects the Department to show up at his farm any moment to destroy his animals and his livelihood.  Unsurprisingly, the Michigan Pork Producers Association—an organization whose members do not grow heritage pigs—supports the Department, which has allegedly assured the Association that its members’ operations will be exempt.  It must be nice for large-scale producers who command enough political clout to simply outlaw their competition.  Meanwhile, Mark Baker and other smaller-scale farmers must wait to see where the bureaucratic winds will blow.

As this episode highlights, administrative agencies constantly try to expand the scope of their jurisdiction to accumulate more and more power.  Originally, Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources was limited to regulating hunting and fishing.  Now, it points to certain state laws and executive orders as authorizing its “Invasive Species Order” to include hogs.  Even though that order claims to exclude domestic hog production from its reach, it does not exclude those pigs, like Baker’s, which exhibit the characteristics on the Department’s list.  According to State Senator Darwin Booher, this order threatens to shut down an estimated 2,000 small farms in his state.

At a time when more and more people are relying on government welfare programs, it is ironic and self-defeating that government should chose to undermine local economies and put self-sufficient farms out of business.