Liberty Knows No Fruit as Bitter as Zoning Laws

Founder’s Note: The response to our newest contributor’s essay on GMOs was overwhelming. It’s clear readers are eager to hear more of Joel Salatin’s take on Liberty-minded issues… and we’re happy to oblige. Today he tackles the slippery slope of seemingly innocent zoning laws meant to protect everyday citizens. Be sure to let us know your thoughts at

A friend recently purchased a farm property in our county. At the time of purchase, it had no buildings, no power, no nothing. It had been used as a cattle-grazing farm for a long time.

The property is a long-term security measure for his family. They currently live a couple of hours away in a suburban setting, but they would like eventually to move to the country and develop a direct-market farm. In the first year, he put in a shed to store a small tractor and some tools. He also parks his RV in it when the family comes down for the weekend.

The next step is an office so he can work a couple of days while staying in the RV. This all seems like a reasonable progression. He’s already installed a septic drain field for sewage and chosen the house site, but that development may be a couple of years away.

Do you think the county’s zoning laws will let him place an office trailer on the property?

Of course not.

Then he pursued putting in a residence with an office inside. Here is the county’s response: “You cannot have a farm office inside a residential structure.”

For the record and in full transparency, I am writing this column from an office located in our home on our farm, in full criminal violation of the county zoning laws.

I don’t know a single farmer in our county who doesn’t have their farm office inside their residence. All of my writing, from books and editing to even my social media posts as part of our farm marketing program, is illegal in my home.

Getting Worse

Other threads of my friend’s interchange with the county are fascinating.

For example, as I mentioned, he already put up a nice six-bay shed. In our county, you don’t need a building permit for a farm building. But this bureaucrat said, “You cannot use a farm building for personal storage. So your tools and parts could be stored in your residence, but not a farm building. Farm building storage includes things like hay and chicken feed and tractors. Your small tractor would not qualify.”

In other words, if I have a farm shed but happen to have an old TV or a sofa I need to store for month, it’s illegal to put it in the shed where I keep the hay mower.

This life and economic micromanagement from government bureaucrats worsens each year.

Some 25 years ago, I remember well seeing an ad for a public hearing about sawmills. It looked to me like the zoning folks wanted to eliminate sawmills on agriculturally zoned land.

I went to the hearing; I was the only one there except for the zoning board. And I was right.

We have 450 acres of top-grade eastern hardwood forest on our farm. I had a small bandsaw mill I used to turn our logs into beautiful lumber: oak, cherry, black walnut, poplar, ash. With the stroke of a pen, these officials planned to criminalize this historically normal activity.

Goodness, every neighborhood used to have a sawmill.

I requested a wording change in the suggested ordinance to allow a landowner to mill the lumber from logs cut on his own property. They thought that seemed reasonable and made the change.

If it weren’t for my catching the ad buried in the classified section and my driving into town to attend the hearing, today it would be illegal for a landowner to cut a tree and mill the log on his own property.

For the record, it’s still illegal for me to take a board from the tree from my property from my mill and turn it into a chair and sell it. That’s considered manufacturing, which is illegal in an agricultural zone. Neither can I legally mill a neighbor’s log into lumber. But I do.

Bitter Fruit

One of the biggest fallouts of industrial food and farming is a “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) public opinion. When the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker became massive industrial factories with dust, odors and congested access, the public began asking for economic segregation.

That’s a powerful word, but it definitely applies here.

The result, in the 1960s, was zoning. Overnight, the stroke of a pen created millionaires and criminals, based on where zoning lines fell. On one side of the road, you could make chairs. On the other, you couldn’t. On one side of the road, you could cure meat; on the other, you couldn’t.

This economic segregation wreaks havoc on “the pursuit of happiness.” If being able to do something with your stuff is not a foundational principle in creating happiness, I don’t know what is.

Whether it’s being able to bounce the ball I own or make a chair from a tree I own, freedom to do something with our stuff is basic to human satisfaction. We all want good stewardship. But if I can’t interact with my stuff, how can anyone tell if I’m a good steward? How can anyone know if I should be entrusted with stuff if I can’t do with my stuff what I want to do?

For the record, I’m not suggesting I can do anything I want with my stuff. The old “your freedom ends at my nose” adage applies here; I’m not advocating anarchy.

But what attracted people to America was the ability to have stuff. The king didn’t own it all. The duke didn’t own it all. You could actually do things with your stuff. That was revolutionary at the time. It couldn’t be confiscated. You didn’t have to bribe someone for permission. You could just go ahead and plant or carve or create.

Zoning ordinances, established to placate the peasants, have actually created shackles on the peasants by denying them access to stewardship and markets.

Few sincere desires have yielded such bitter fruits as zoning.

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