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Farmers Find New Allies and Solutions

Promise for Michigan agriculture

September 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The end of the year in Michigan's farm community generally prompts poetic observations from outsiders about the time-honored cycles of sowing, tilling, and harvest. Lately, though, the annual harvest has meant something much different to farmers snared by the modern irony of hardship amidst abundance. The bitter reward for increases in efficiency and productivity is that farmers receive less for what they raise in real dol- lars today than they did 20 years ago.

The consequences of this narrowing struggle between profit and ruin now are cutting a wide path through countless rural communities in Michigan. A 1995 study by the Michigan Society of Planning Officials found that 85,000 acres of crop and pasture land in the state are being lost each year to suburban sprawl, the fourth- fastest farmland conversion rate in the nation after Florida, California, and Colorado. Cities are sprawling far- ther out into the countryside, dramatically raising the value of land and often provoking -- or forcing -- farm- ers to subdivide and sell.

The migration of suburbanites and retailers to once-rural areas increases property taxes, traffic congestion, and vandalism, and contributes to making it even more difficult for farmers who want to stay in business. In 1997 the American Farmland Trust, a Washington-based conservation group, reported that the Grand Traverse area and the Lake Michigan fruit belt around St. Joseph are two of the 20 most-endangered farm regions in the nation.

This is not how most people believe farming in Michigan is supposed to work. Working farms stabilize the state and local economies and provide self-sufficiency in the food supply. The encompassing presence of the Great Lakes produces unique micro-climates for cherries, wine grapes, apples, peaches, and a cornucopia of specialty fruits and vegetables. Overall, Michigan has the second most diverse farm output in the nation. Keeping land in farming also preserves the rural countryside, and with it the growing tourism industry.

Unfortunately, the downward spiral of economic and social forces is resulting in a farm exodus. In 1992, when the last national farm census was taken, Michigan had 46,562 farms, 21% fewer than in 1982.

Such disturbing figures now are prompting Michigan's local governments and environmental, farm, and business groups to form once-unlikely alliances. Their goals: to slow the loss of farmland, and shore up the agriculture economy.

"What we have in this state is a persistent loss of the best farmland to development pressure, and a lot of work in communities to stop it," said David Skjaerlund, a land use policy specialist at the Michigan Department of Agriculture. "The grass roots activity has caused two results. Local governments are beginning to develop ways to protect farmland on their own. And they are putting more pressure on Lansing to change state policy."

In Traverse City, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor, community leaders are seeking to strengthen zoning ordi- nances, purchase the development rights to farmland, and address new marketing techniques to improve farm prices.

The Engler Administration has taken notice. In 1996, at the Governor's urging, the Legislature approved a change in the 1974 Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act to provide $14 million to purchase the devel- opment rights to farmland. Nearly 800 farmers signed up last spring to become eligible.

Under such a program, farmers receive payments from the state that amount to the difference between the land's value for agriculture and its value for residential development. In return an easement is placed on the land to permanently keep it available for agriculture.

At current land values, the Department of Natural Resources, which manages the program, intends to spend the first $7 million to purchase the development rights on 37 farms covering 5,000 acres, at about $1,400 per acre.

State officials say that the investment is a sound one. Every acre that is preserved in agriculture generates hundreds of dollars in farm products each year, maintains rural employment, lowers township and county operating costs, and yields an abundance of other socially-useful results.

The realtor and homebuilder lobbies are skeptical about programs to preserve farmland. Both groups gen- erally fear any change they believe could limit the amount of land on which to build or sell homes. And lead- ers in both groups are concerned that public programs to preserve farmland could lead to greater involvement by local and state governments in managing the uses of land.

The editorial pages of the Detroit News have become a leading forum for those who doubt the value of preserving farmland. In an article last June, David L. Litman, an economist and member of the newspaper's board of contributors, accused farmland preservation advocates of misleading the public with scare tactics, and claimed that their real goal was to block new development.

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