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The Serious Side of Selling Fun On Farms

Macomb growers push township to regulate ‘agritourism’

April 27, 2005 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


By growing its business in many entrepreneurial directions, Westview Orchards continues to thrive even though it’s only a 180-acre farm, small by today’s standards.

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Katherine Roy, 92-year-old matriarch of one of Michigan’s oldest working farms, is spitting mad.

Over the years Mrs. Roy’s two daughters have expanded the operation, Westview Orchards and Cider Mill of Romeo, into an “agritourism farm” that offers customers “on-farm family fun" along with the fruit that workers pick from neat rows of trees. But suddenly last September this township in northern Macomb County grew concerned enough about the safety of one attraction, a fort-like slide, that it issued a “cease and desist”  order that required Mrs. Roy’s operation to close the ride down.

But, instead of spitting, Mrs. Roy and daughters Abby and Katrina are channeling their anger in productive directions. They and a large contingent of other farmers and residents from this rapidly suburbanizing community are now trying to persuade officials to adopt a new “value-added agriculture” ordinance instead of banning kid-friendly activities. Proponents of the new ordinance, which would move Westview Orchard’s family fun out of the regulatory gray area it currently occupies into legal sunshine, packed a township planning commission meeting on April 14. They urged the commission to adopt the ordinance quickly.

If the ordinance is enacted, it will be one of only a handful of such laws in the state. Most ordinances controlling farm activity have little to do with petting farms, hayrides, and other activities that have sprouted up among smaller, more entrepreneurial operations in recent years, including Westview. The daughters and their allies argue that it is high time the laws caught up with the reality of small farms because their survival depends on continuing and even expanding such activities. They add that allowing farms to flourish in new ways is the best way to protect their area’s valuable farmland and open spaces. It also boosts the county’s job numbers; during its peak season, Westview employs about 100 people.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are showing strong interest in the relatively new phenomenon of agritourism. Yesterday the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that would establish a comission to look into the practice, report to the governor and Legislature on its current state, analyze related local zoning ordinances, and draw up a model ordinance that would include signage regulations.

Proud History
A favorable report from such a commission would likely come as a relief for Mrs. Roy. Even in the midst of her newfound citizen activism, she finds time to wonder aloud if township officials really understand what she, her family, and their orchard are really all about.

“Hard work! That’s what goes into everything here,” Mrs. Roy says of the family’s marketing operation. She believes that the township’s questioning of their business overlook the family’s long history of high quality products and professional care for customers, which have won the family and farm many agricultural industry awards.

Mrs. Roy’s father first started selling peaches off the back of his truck from the farm’s busy Van Dyke Road frontage around 1930, when a wholesale buyer in Detroit told him not to bother driving his fruit into the city because there was more than enough on sale there already.

“Our grandfather just put up a sign that read ‘75 cents a bushel’ on one side, for the morning, and ‘50 cents a bushel’ on the other side, for later in the day,” recalled Katrina Schumacher, who now operates the farm with her sister, Abby Roy Jacobsen, and their families.

The sisters are the sixth generation that has worked the 180-acre farm, which was founded in 1813. They have kept the farm going by keeping the family’s focus on marketing fresh-picked fruit and farm-fresh air to city families hungry for a connection to the land. In the mid-1990s, they expanded their operation to include orchard tours and cider making.

Today, a trip to Westview Orchards includes such attractions as a petting farm, complete with a two-story “goat walk” that draws passers-by, and the Black Hole illusion tunnel that delights kids by tricking their perception. The big operation also has a farmers market, a bakery, a corn maze, educational tours, and even a restored schoolhouse originally built in 1869. Besides peaches, its orchards grow apples, pears, sweet and tart cherries. In the fall, there’s pumpkins and apple cider, too.

Gray Areas
But it was the farm’s huge, fort-like slide, next to the Straw Mountain, that drew last summer’s cease-and-desist order. Mrs. Roy and her daughters recognize that, without a permit on file, the township might have some safety questions. On a busy summer day, for example, 7,000 people can show up at Westview Orchards, about a third of whom pay a seven-dollar admission charge to, as the operation’s motto puts it, “Get a Taste of Old-Fashioned Fun.”

And, while the family does admit the township has some legitimate concerns, they also fear that last summer’s legal wrangling could actually be just the first step toward shutting down the extra activities, from hayrides to corn mazes, that a number of agritourism farms in the township have offered successfully for years and that their owners say are essential to staying in business. That’s why area farmers are eager to get something in writing from the township.

“As we’ve developed here, we’ve gotten into a gray area,” said Ms. Jacobson. Farms already have plenty of regulators looking into their traditional activities — from federal food safety laws to Michigan Department of Agriculture’s oversight of petting farms and chemicals used in fruit production. But slides and illusion tunnels fall through the regulatory gaps.

If the township approves the value-added agriculture ordinance, it will actually be a big help to the township’s other farms, said Ken Miller, owner-operator of Miller’s Big Red Orchard, a few miles northwest of Westview Orchards. In fact, Mr. Miller said he’s looking forward to having something in black and white language.

“It will be nice to have something substantial and in writing,” he said, in order to guide both the farms and the township as on-farm entertainment evolves. “To keep them coming, we try to do what the customers ask for. And you can only tell so many people ‘No, we don’t have petting farm,’ before, yes, you do have a petting farm.”

The proposed ordinance is an attempt to define the range of on-farm activities allowed in an agricultural zone — from petting farms to small-scale food processing. The ordinance would require farms to submit a site plan providing the township with information about their activities; it would also establish standards for signage and procedures for seeking variances.

Pro-farm Is Pro-business
The April 14 public hearing on the initial, citizen-led draft of the proposal drew a standing-room only crowd of supporters, many carrying “I support rural Washington” signs. For nearly three hours, resident after resident stood up to urge township planning commission members to support the ordinance as a tool for farmland preservation and local economic development.

 “Not only is this ordinance pro-business for farmers, it’s also pro-business for businesses around the farms,” said Dan O’Leary, president of a new citizen-based Smart Growth group in the area called North Macomb Association for Planned Growth. “A long strip leads right up to some of these orchards; it’s great to have traffic up and down those streets. It helps all those folks.”

Other residents reminded commissioners that, while backers of a controversial nearby development proposal say their idea would make the township a “destination,” the area is already exactly that, thanks to its many agritourism farms. Local resident Nick Salis said he hopes the sign on nearby M-53 directing drivers to the “business district” would, in the future, continue to also read “and orchards.”

“We’ve got to really embrace what’s left because once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Mr. Salis said.

The planning commission ended the meeting by establishing a subcommittee to work out the details of the draft ordinance. “It’s a bit of a laundry list right now,” said commission member Suzanne Hayes. She and others want to make sure the ordinance is reasonable but also solid. “It cuts both ways … we want to make sure we have a good ordinance that protects the farmer and the public.”

Patty Cantrell directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture program. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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