In this three-part series, Inman News examines America’s shrinking farm real estate. Urbanites tired of crammed city living, along with population growth and sprawling development, are a few trends affecting farmland. Some farmers are finding themselves on the edge of developed areas, whereas they used to be located in much more remote regions. See Part 1: Urbanites nab more country real estate and Part 3: Rural land shrinking at rapid rates.)
To Dale Lesser, a farmer in Washtenaw County, Mich., there’s nothing more rewarding than growing things.
“It’s wonderful to be able to grow things and live off the land,” he said. “I’d call it the oldest profession.”
But Lesser foresees a changing landscape coming for his region’s farmland over the next 10 years. Most of the farms around him belong to people who now are more than 80 years old and he said he’s already seeing friends move off to nursing homes. “There are many farmers who are at that age where they are ready to sell,” he said.
The only way those farms don’t end up in developers’ hands is if a non-farmer who wants to preserve the land for their own home buys it so he or she can live there, according to Lesser.
Lesser’s county over the last three or four decades has seen a lot of people and development moving in from Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. He worries that agriculture doesn’t stand a chance against development once it starts.
As real estate values have skyrocketed throughout most of the country and more urban and suburban areas have sprawled into rural regions, a farmer’s agricultural land use faces tough competition with other developmental uses for land. The situation has spurred Lesser and others to become involved in preservation programs at the grassroots level.
Lesser has been active in local farmland preservation efforts as co-chair of his county Farm Bureau’s Land Use Committee and he also serves on the Ann Arbor Green Belt Board.
Lesser’s farm raises livestock and produces grain, and he also maintains a small orchard and beehives. He said his farm isn’t under financial stress, but acknowledged the economics of farming can be difficult. “We have a farm market where we can sell stuff at retail prices,” he said.
Farming has been in Lesser’s family for about 100 years and he’s interested in preserving farmland for continued agricultural operations. He said he feels that farmland doesn’t get the respect that as a natural resource it deserves. “At some point you can’t just go on developing without any regard for a natural resource,” he said.
But he feels that the age of “being able to develop land anyhow and anywhere” is coming to an end thanks to grassroots efforts and state, local and federal preservation programs.
His own farm is situated in an area deemed as open space under a state program that prevents development. He said developers haven’t approached him about selling his farm because of that.
But many farmers face difficult decisions as they start to age and profits from farming remain low. Lesser said the same prices are paid at the wholesale level for food he produces now as when he graduated from high school in 1972.
The Michigan Farm Bureau established committees for each county wanting to start a farmland preservation effort to get farmers involved at a grassroots level, Lesser said, and the efforts have helped so far. But the preservation efforts have caused a stir among some farmers, he said, because they fear they may have to give up their rights to sell to the highest bidder in exchange for preservation programs that may use restrictive zoning.
“There’s a lot of opposition among farmers to efforts at farmland preservation because they are fearful it would be mandatory and not voluntary,” he said. Farmers want voluntary programs that would give them an alternative to selling to a developer, he said.
That’s where Property Development Rights programs have come into play.
Several counties in Michigan have adopted Property Development Rights programs, and there is also a statewide program, according to Glenn Chown, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, which is charged with overseeing the region’s program.
The programs have preserved more than 4,000 acres of Michigan farmland, Chown said. “A number of farmers have signed up and gotten in line to sell their development rights. The goal is to save over 9,000 acres.”
Under the programs, a farmer sells his or her land development rights – usually to a local governing body – and those rights are then extinguished so that no one could ever come in and build a subdivision, Chown explained. Instead of preserving land through zoning and regulatory mechanisms, the farmer/owner is compensated for the value of those development rights.
“It’s a nice middle ground between doing nothing while having all this huge value on your farmland and just selling to a developer,” he said. “It allows the farmers to keep the land in their families, but to get some equity out of it too.”
There’s been no backlash from developers in Chown’s area that he’s aware of, but he said there has been some pushback in other regions where land values have escalated.
“It’s a tool that’s working,” he said. “Take a drive on the Old Mission Peninsula, for example, and you’ll see an area in which 10-12 years ago people were saying the end of agriculture is coming soon – and it’s thriving there today.”
While preservation efforts have had some success in Michigan, some argue that the problem of urban sprawl still exists and could grow even worse if preservation strategies and growth strategies don’t work together.
Gil White, a Realtor who sits on Michigan’s Agricultural Preservation Fund Board, cautions that some problems exist with farmland preservation programs such as the purchase of development rights because while the state and counties are signing up to preserve land they aren’t simultaneously implementing growth strategies.
“You can’t do one without the other,” said White, who’s also been appointed to the governor’s Land Use Leadership Council. “If you don’t accommodate for growth, one consequence is that it could leap frog even further out.”
And with further sprawling comes all the associated problems like added traffic congestion, longer commute times, and having to extend infrastructure further from core cities and towns, he said.
Other efforts in the state to curb sprawl and preserve farmland have focused on educating people who are looking to move to the country.
Mark Knudsen, director of the Ottawa County Planning and Grants Department, caught national and international attention when he masterminded a scratch-and-sniff brochure campaign in 2002 to educate city slickers about the realities of country living. When scratched, the brochures smell like manure, a part of farm life that a surprising number of urbanites aren’t aware of, Knudsen said.
“One factor discouraging our farmers from staying in agriculture is nuisance complaints,” he said. A lot of people will move to farm areas from the city and start filing complaints with the police or county commissioner about the smell and noise that comes from the neighboring farm, he said. “They want the operation shut down immediately, but it doesn’t work that way.”
Ottawa County has urban growth approaching from all directions, Knudsen said, and the county is also the largest agricultural producer in the state. This has created a situation in which people used to living in urban areas are moving further into farm areas, he said.
Farmers distribute the brochures to neighbors, local townships distribute them through their offices and Realtors and lenders hand them out to people when they look at properties in rural areas.
About 30,000 brochures have been printed so far, Knudsen said, and though it’s too early to provide statistics because of the state’s lag time, he has some anecdotal evidence that the campaign is helping: “We have not had a single call in our office complaining since the brochure went out.”
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