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For State Farmers and Their Land, New Respect

MSU says farmland protection would strengthen new economy

November 11, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe/MLUI

Gordon Endsley is profitably incorporating new principles of the 21st-century economy that economists say Michigan must embrace to compete. 

HASTINGS – Often overlooked in the mayhem that is Michigan’s economy is the contribution that agriculture makes to sustain the state, particularly such bright spots as the enterprising success of Gordon and Pat Endsley.

It’s not just that the Endsley farm raises purebred Charolais beef cattle on 700 acres of prime Barry County land. Or that the Endsleys and their oldest son, Boyd, also feed 700 dairy heifers under contract to two neighboring farmers, one of them Mr. Endsley’s brother, Paul.

It’s also that the Endsleys are profitably incorporating new principles of the 21st-century economy—a thriving natural landscape, freshwater conservation, environmental sensitivity, technological enterprise—that many economists say Michigan must embrace to compete. 

A new study, soon to be released by the Michigan State University Land Policy Program, makes the same point. Central to the state’s well-being, said the report, is the need not only to recognize agriculture’s full $59.1 billion annual contribution to Michigan’s economy, but also to conserve enough of Michigan’s 10 million acres of farmland to ensure that it thrives. The study’s authors argue that instead of being viewed as a reservoir of empty land eligible for development, Michigan’s farmland should be regarded as a solid base for shaping a new economic development strategy.

“Reversing Michigan’s economic slide will require structural and policy changes in how the state manages its land resources,” said the study’s lead author, Soji Adelaja, the director of the Land Policy Program. “The state’s economic problems are not merely cyclical, but grounded in the absence of a consistent vision for how the state will continue to develop into the future. Michigan’s economy is very closely tied to its land base.”

Until that vision arrives, however, the Endsleys, despite their ongoing success, have something to worry about: The brand-new houses that are now springing up in Barry County.

Innovative, Successful, but Vulnerable
As a business enterprise there is a lot to admire about the Endsley farm. It supports two families, four full-time employees, and is profitable enough for the Endsleys to develop more efficient practices that keep costs under control and raise productivity. Three years ago, for example, Mr. Endsley noticed that instead of resting on the soybean straw he’d put in the barn for bedding, his cattle were eating it. He began mixing the straw with the cows’ regular ration and discovered that the extra fiber filled them up and lowered feed costs. The 50 Charolais bulls he sells in Texas earns his operation $70,000 each year. 

“You know, I was thinking about this,” Mr. Endsley said. “That’s money that comes from some place else into Michigan’s economy.”

Yet even with all of the progressive practices the Endsleys deploy to manage their farm, including a manure waste management system that controls odor and the potential to pollute streams, every now and again a surprising and disturbing measure of their farm’s vulnerability appears, literally, on their horizon.

“We’ve had six or seven put up within a mile of here in the last five years,” said Mrs. Endsley of the houses they are starting to see around them. “Is it a concern? It could be.”

Statistics suggest the Endsley do have something to worry about. From 1997 to 2002, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, Michigan converted 300,000 acres of farmland to other uses, approximately 60,000 acres annually. A study by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants found that if the pattern of ever-outward development persists, an average of 30,000 acres a year would be lost through 2040. Moreover, the study said, the bulk of farmland conversion will occur in the southern counties of the Lower Peninsula, along the Interstate 96 and Interstate 94 corridors. In other words, the state’s most productive farmland also is its most vulnerable.

Little Certainty, Scant Attention
The Endsley farm and some 500 others in their county lie midway between the two Interstates, directly in the path of the steady wave of suburban construction sweeping out of Lansing and west to the shores of Lake Michigan. According to the Census and other studies, Barry County has lost 1,500 acres of farmland to development each year since 1982 and, in the nine years from 1994 to 2003, nearly 4,000 new homes were built there. With its close proximity to the Interstates, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo, Barry County’s agrarian heritage is giving way to a rising commuter community. 

“My great grandfather built this house and this farm,” said Mr. Endsley during a conversation in the family’s office, just off the kitchen, decorated by photographs that start with a black and white image of his kin from almost a century ago. “Our son is involved now. We think one or two of our grandkids will be involved. We need more certainty, though, for that to happen.”

The same can be said for all of Michigan agriculture. Research by the MSU program finds that even though agriculture is the state’s second-largest industrial sector, the erosion of its central resource—some 10 million acres of productive, arable land—is not generating nearly as much attention from citizens or policy makers as it merits. A new analysis by the Michigan Department of Agriculture finds that farming remains one of the state’s major industrial sectors. Michigan’s 55,200 farmers produced more than 200 commodities that generated $4.3 billion in farm gate receipts in 2004, an all time high. The MDA analysis also said that agriculture’s overall contribution to Michigan’s economy—through products, processing, marketing, distribution, and other activities—is $59.1 billion annually and accounts for one million jobs.

According to the MSU study, which was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in response to a request from Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s office, the value of farmland also includes scenic views, recreational opportunities, habitat protection, farm markets, and the state’s rural quality of life, all of which have not been quantified but nevertheless have enormous financial benefits for Michigan.

Plenty of Notice
Warnings about the loss of farmland in Michigan are not new. Two years ago, the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a bipartisan panel appointed by Governor Granholm and Republican Legislative leaders, noted that the decline of the state’s farmland base was harming Michigan’s competitiveness. In 1997, American Farmland Trust, a national conservation group based in Washington, found Michigan’s fruit belt, which lies along the Lake Michigan coast from Kent County to Leelanau County and is one of the most productive apple and cherry growing regions on earth, was in grave danger from new housing and business construction.

Previously, a 1995 study by the Planning and Zoning Center, Michigan’s Trend Future, sounded an alarm about farmland loss: “To defer decision is to decide in favor of the current pattern of development, leaving all the problems to our children and grandchildren.” 

But as Michigan communities continue to spread out, converting farmland at a rate three to four times faster than the state’s population growth, the problem is becoming urgent. The authors of the new MSU study see the loss of farmland as a huge wasted economic opportunity. After all, few other Michigan industries have agriculture’s ability to incorporate new technology, produce competitive products, and generate new jobs that actually stay in Michigan. But securing that capacity requires securing the land, a goal that was prominent in Lansing five years ago, but has waned as other priorities—like closing the state budget deficit—took precedence.

That priority has not waned here in Barry County, however, where farmers and local elected leaders understand what is to be gained by conserving farmland, and lost if it isn’t. Almost 220,000 of Barry County’s 368,000-plus acres are devoted to agriculture, according to the county planning department. There are about 500 working farms producing nearly $50 million in products annually, most of it livestock. Among Michigan farm counties Barry ranks in the top half in farm numbers and sales.

But Barry’s rolling pasture and bucolic scenery is now attracting a healthy housing industry. When it comes to population growth, the county has shot up from 35th place in the 1990s to 17th place so far this decade, and now has nearly 60,000 people.

Most of the increase is due to in-migration, particularly from Kent County, which borders Barry County. Even in the face of a gripping, statewide recession, the five townships closest to Grand Rapids—Thornapple, Irving, Carlton, Rutland, Hastings—attracted half of the 325 new driveway permits issued last year by the Barry County Road Commission.

“We see the land fragmentation every day,” said Dennis J. Pennington, the Michigan State University extension agent, whose office is in Hastings, the county’s largest city. “We’re having more conflicts between farmers and new residents, particularly in livestock operations.”

Barry County farmers agree that the new development is causing them some problems. Traffic is increasing. Confrontations over manure management practices on the largest livestock and dairy farms are increasing, although the Endsleys are quick to show a visitor a thick consultant’s study they commissioned to help them deal with large quantities of manure in ways that prevent water pollution and minimize odors. 

It Gets Sticky
Viewed from one perspective, Castleton Township, where the Endsleys have lived so long, seems an unlikely place for a collision between new homes and agriculture. Castleton is the slowest-growing township in the county and one of the slowest growing in southern Michigan. Its population, about 3,500, grows by just 10 people a year, say demographers, and by 2020 there will be only 150 more people here.

There’s the rub, however: If the average family measures 2.6 people, Castleton’s housing stock should be increasing by less than four homes a year. But the county road commission, which issues driveway permits, nearly all for new homes, says that from 1999 through the end of 2004, it issued an average of 11 permits annually in Castleton Township, nearly three times more than expected. Some are second homes. 

Mr. Endsley said it doesn’t take many more new houses to make a farmer’s life more difficult. It’s not just the congested roads or concern over animal odors. It’s also how new homes drive up the value of farmland. A neighbor farmer that sells out makes it harder for those still in the business.

It goes deeper than that, too. Not long ago Mr. Endsley and his son invested $500,000 in new barns to shelter the heifers they raise under contract. The barns, which have increased the family’s profitability, are near a neighboring farm. So long as that bordering land is in agriculture, there’s no problem. But if the neighbor’s land is sold for development, and new homes are built, it gets sticky.

The state’s “right to farm” rules say that if the Endsleys expand they have to build the new barns at least a half-mile from the nearest neighbor. With new homes drawing closer, and farmland getting costlier, decisions about whether or not to expand profitable livestock operations are getting considerably more complex.

“What happens if our grandsons want to come back and be farmers?” Mr. Endsley asked.  “What happens if the neighbor happens to sell? What if 20 houses go up near us? Those thoughts always lie in the back of your head.” 

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. This article is the first in a four-part series on farmland conversion and conservation. The next article describes measures the state and local governments have taken to protect farmland. Reach the author at keith@mlui.org

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