Baraga County farmers continue legal battle, add federal front to hog farming question

BARAGA TOWNSHIP – Husband and wife Roger and Brenda Turunen, Baraga County pig farmers, are continuing a legal battle to protect their livelihood against a Michigan Department of Natural Resources order that could declare their breed of pig an invasive species.

The Turunens have developed hundreds of old-world “Hogan Hogs,” a breed of pig able to withstand the Upper Peninsula’s harsh winters. It “is in demand locally, statewide and nationally for its moderate temperament, hardiness, tasty meat and its outward resemblance to the wild Eurasian boar,” according to a statement from Brenda.

While all the pigs are penned in at Ma Hog Farm, a DNR Invasive Species Order amendment that went into effect in April 2012 – meant to target feral swine (swine that have lived their life or any part of their life as free roaming, or not under the husbandry of humans, as defined by the Michigan Animal Industry Act) – could render the Turunens criminals.

It could do so by enforcing the ISO solely by a list of phenotype characteristics (physical appearance, not genetic make-up), such as tail structure (including either curly or straight tails), ear structure (including either erect or floppy ears) and “other characteristics not currently known to the MDNR that are identified by the scientific community.”

The Turunens have filed two separate lawsuits dealing with the matter.

Roger has a case, originally filed through Baraga County Circuit Court in March 2012, against the DNR about the ISO itself. Other similar suits have been filed in five counties. His case is set to go to trial in June, although a “void for vagueness” claim (that the ISO being enforced was too vague) was rejected last year by Marquette County Circuit Court judge Thomas Solka.

“One simple motion on one simple issue didn’t pan out the way we hoped,” said Joseph O’Leary, attorney for both Turunens, in a recent Daily Mining Gazette interview.

All the other claims in the civil case are still in order.

Brenda, just last month, filed a federal case through U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in Marquette against the DNR and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, claiming the agencies are violating her right as a Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member to farm as outlined in the 1842 Treaty with the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.

“The suits are unrelated to each other. Roger is asserting claims under state law. She is asserting claims under a federal treaty,” O’Leary explained. “… This is an additional tactic.”

Brenda specifically has been farming her land, adjacent to KBIC reservation land, for 23 years, based on her treaty rights. She is also a member of the Copper Country Farm Bureau Board of Directors and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency County Committee.

“I have always believed that every American has the right to farm, a right that should be protected and promoted by the government,” she said. “It is disturbing to watch these state agencies attack farmers, trying to make them into criminals.

“I feel sorry for the farmers of Michigan who have to deal with such agencies and I thank God that my right to farm is protected by the 1842 Treaty.”

O’Leary emphasized that her right to farm – and she also grows crops – is subject “only to the reasonable regulations of the United States or the tribe itself.”

KBIC Tribal Council President Chris Swartz also weighed in through a press release: “Historically, whenever Indian people succeed the government moves to destroy what they have created. For centuries the whiteman tried to turn us into farmers and it worked. Brenda Turunen is a successful farmer and now finds herself the latest target of the state’s hostility towards Indian rights. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community is behind her 100 percent. … We are confident she will win because our ancestors had the foresight to guarantee us the right to farm when they negotiated the 1842 Treaty.”

Brenda, according to the partial wording of the official complaint filed in court, is seeking two prayers for relief: 1) “that her farming operations within the Ceded Territory are among the ‘other usual privileges of occupancy’ reserved to the Indian signatories in Article II of the 1842 Treaty,” and 2) seeking “a permanent injunction … enjoining defendants (MDNR, MDARD) from enforcing their ISO or any other State of Michigan laws or regulations upon Plaintiff’s 1842 Treaty-protected farming operations.”

The agencies are expected to respond soon to Brenda’s complaint.