Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 28, 2013

Wild hog rules: Some farmers upset about restrictions


---- — CEDAR — Reid Johnston is a Cedar-area farmer who's thinking about raising hybrid hogs for specialty meats, a potential niche business to feed area restaurants and farmers markets.

“It’s something I’d really like to do,” Johnston said. “Unless you want to be huge, you can’t make a living doing the status quo. You have to do something different.”

But Johnston has concerns about getting into the hybrid pig business when he looks at the Michigan officials' recent efforts to eradicate feral swine. He points to a battle between the state and another hybrid pig farmer, Mark Baker, who faces nearly $700,000 in fines for owning hybrid pigs the state deems illegal.

“The whole thing seems so crazy to me that I find it hard to believe that they are actually going to go through with it,” Johnston said.

In April 2012, Michigan began to enforce an invasive species order that prohibits possession of Russian Boar, or pigs with characteristics of what are commonly referred to as Old World Swine. The reasons clearly are well-intentioned – in states where feral swine have taken hold, the effects on nature and agriculture are obvious and devastating.

Feral hogs are an environmental menace, destroying crops and wildlands alike, and annually cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage in the United States.

Patrick Rusz, director of wildlife programs for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, suspects there are approximately 5,000 wild hogs in Michigan right now.

“This is a game of ecological Russian roulette,” Rusz said.

But critics of the state’s push to eliminate feral swine contend enforcement efforts harm small farmers and hunting ranches. State Department of Natural Resources officials forced the proprietor of Deer Tracks Ranch in Fife Lake to kill all his hogs following an inspection.

For the agriculture community, frustration focuses on the plight of Marion farmer Mark Baker, who owns about 140 pigs he describes as Mangalitsa hogs originally from Eastern Europe.

Baker takes pride in raising the specialty animals, but state officials ordered them destroyed because they believe the swine are a threat.

“The higher-end chefs, the more astute chefs … they like them,” Baker said. “It has a very high-quality fat, but they have to be fed properly."

Baker said his problems with the state started in 2011, when he said Don Coe, a state agriculture commissioner from Leelanau County, and managing partner at Black Star Farms, let area chefs know Baker’s hogs would soon be illegal.

Coe did not respond to a request for comment. Baker said DNR officials lowered the boom and ordered his hogs destroyed. Baker refused and sued. His case is pending in the state courts.

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office recently filed court documents and seeks a fine of nearly $700,000 against Baker, who said he believes the state will attempt to fine him $1.2 million.

DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the state isn't targeting small farms and the rule is simple -- Russian Boar no longer can be owned in Michigan, though hybrid hogs that aren't Russian Boar-like are allowed. He said enforcement efforts are supported by a wide coalition of groups, including many hog farmers.

Baker said his ability to raise hogs is a constitutional right. He believes big agriculture concerns are trying to rid themselves of competitors.

He pledges to continue his court fight to maintain small farmers' rights.

"(The state) said, 'we’ll ... offer you a deal ... Mark. If you’ll kill all your pigs, allow us to inspect your farm and promise never to make a living again doing this, we won’t charge you with a felony," Baker said.