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Land Protection, Good Food Charter Would Help State Economy

Elections a chance to push Lansing on farm policy improvements

September 13, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Farmland protection programs like Acme Township’s help farms, the environment, and wildlife.

Ken and Jan Engle are slowly working themselves out of their longtime jobs as farmers. For 40 years, they've been raising children, cherries, and corn on some 300 acres of land near Williamsburg, in Acme Township, east of Traverse City.

So why did Ken and Jan, now in their 60s, recently invest in planting an entirely new cherry orchard? After all, it takes about 10 years for a cherry tree to start really producing for a farmer.

"I don't know who will end up farming that orchard," Ken said. "Maybe one of our workers, maybe one of our kids ... All I know is it wouldn't have happened if this land wasn't protected."

Ken is talking about how he and Jan are putting money they have gained through the township's farmland protection program back into their land, which includes one of the best sites for growing cherries in that part of Grand Traverse County.

Even though they are retiring, the Engles are now confident about investing in their farm, no matter who ends up harvesting those cherry trees. They believe the orchard will continue because the township's program is also helping to preserve farm property all around theirs, keeping a local economy, community, and way of life intact.

Acme Township Supervisor Wayne Kladder believes it too, and supports the program as a way to strengthen the region's future. "There's economic value in that land and in preserving that culture and way of life," he said at a recent Grant Traverse Regional Land Conservancy event celebrating the success of Acme Township's farmland protection program.

The program is based on a local tax that township voters approved in 2004 to finance purchases of land-development rights from local farmers. The purchases reduce farmers' need (or temptation) to sell picturesque properties for anything but growing more crops. The purchases also come with a covenant: Whoever buys those properties in the future must keep them in agriculture.

But Acme and neighboring Peninsula Township are two of only three local governments in the state that have taken the step of raising their own money to build what they call "a long-term business environment for agriculture."

Calling All Candidates
At Acme's recent celebration, state agriculture commissioner and local vintner Don Coe asked the crowd what Michigan might look like if state lawmakers also made the future of farming a high priority.

He said, "It's time we have someone in the executive office and in state elected offices who will say what the governor of Wisconsin has said, that agriculture is at the core of our economy."

Mr. Coe, managing partner for Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, held up the new Michigan Good Food Charter as a blueprint for similar actions candidates running for election this fall need to take when in office.

Produced through a statewide prioritizing process, the Charter calls for 20 percent of Michigan food to come from Michigan farms by 2020 and twice as many people, 80 percent of the population, to have easy, affordable access to it. Action items range from helping schools and hospitals put healthy, local food on student and patient plates to making sure local zoning and economic development support farmland preservation and urban and rural food production.

Sponsors of the Charter are the Michigan Food Policy Council, Michigan Food Bank Council, and C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University.

The Charter is a platform for putting Michigan more squarely on the course that states like Wisconsin are already pursuing, Mr. Coe said. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle recently called agriculture the "backbone" of the state's economy upon designating 200,000 acres of prime farmland as "agricultural enterprise areas."  The designations are among a raft of programs Wisconsin has initiated both to keep land in agriculture and help existing and new farms diversify their operations.

Michigan lawmakers, in contrast, have dramatically cut funding to the state agriculture department, even as the food and agriculture sector continually proves to be the strongest and fastest growing part of Michigan's economy. The department's budget officer reports a 52 percent decrease since 2000 in general fund revenue for agriculture.

Working Lands
Yet farmland protection and farm business support are chief among the strategies that "new economy" experts say are needed to gird local commerce and build the quality of life that retains and attracts needed investments by families and businesses. A recent survey by Michigan State University's Land Policy Institute confirms that state residents think so, too.

Approximately 74.2 percent of survey respondents believed that the agricultural industry and farmland are “very important,” and 22.8 percent believed they are “somewhat important” to the state’s economic recovery, for a total of 97 percent. This combined value is greater than the values for all other sectors the survey covered, including renewable energy, the automobile industry, parks and trails, and tourism.

Local agriculture promoter Nels Veliquette explained at the Acme Township event that the community's success comes from connecting farmland protection and farm business support. "This township has done a great job in terms of working with local farms on economic and business issues, too."

The combination has the township on course to keep some 1,400 acres in business, as "working lands," not just scenic land.

With assistance from the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, the township has so far put 220 acres from three farms under permanent farmland protection. This investment has not only leveraged long-term commitment from local farms but also a recent $600,000 matching grant from the federal Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program. The money will cover about one-quarter of the funding the township needs to add another 392 acres from those three farms to its protected total.

More farms are now lining up to add their acres to the program. Ken Engle explains it's not just because of the money, but also for the long-term business environment the program is protecting by patching together large blocks of farmers and farmland, parcel by parcel.

"Every one of us is bought into it," he said. "Farmers need farmers next to them; residential people next to us get in the way. ... We've seen it happen across the state: Everywhere subdivisions have gone in, farming has gone out of that area."

But that typical development pattern, from Michigan's more flush economic times, is not likely to repeat itself in Acme Township. Its farmland protection program, along with county and state natural areas, will soon cover 35 percent of the land along U.S. 31 as travelers come into Traverse City just north of M-72 along East Grand Traverse Bay.

Michigan Department of Agriculture Director Don Koivisto said these blocks of protected land are not only beautiful, but also bountiful in terms of what they can produce: food, jobs, water protection, wildlife habitat, and more.

"It benefits everyone, both people who live here and people who come here," he said.

[Business journalist Patty Cantrell founded the Taste the Local Difference program at the Michigan Land Use Institute and has led development of the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network. She is a member of the Michigan Food Policy Council and co-chaired the Michigan Good Food Charter's "food system infrastructure" task force. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.]

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