(farm-a-bil-it-ee) – noun.

1. The suitability of land to be used for various agricultural purposes.

2. A unique program in use in Leelanau County in which farmers are paid to keep their lands devoted to agricultural purposes rather than selling them off as development parcels – oh, and which other groups around the state are hoping to emulate.

LEELANAU – The Leelanau FarmAbility program is exceptional for a lot of reasons. For starters, it's the first of its kind in the nation – an innovative program designed to keep farmland as farmland by providing privately-raised funds to family farmers to ensure they'll farm their lands for a 10-year period. The money comes from various entities, private individuals, Rotary Charities and the like.

But the real precedent setter is its success.

"There are some private (funded programs), some similar programs that are successful, but none that are both," says Tom Nelson, Director of Farm Programs for the Leelanau Conservancy.

Except this one. The program, launched in 2009, had the initial goal of enrolling 5,000 acres of family-owned farmland. The farmers who owned that acreage would be paid $10 an acre per year, for a maximum of ten years. That may not sound like much, but that's on top of whatever they make from the farming.

It also adds up to a total investment of $500,000, which Nelson says is well worth the cost.

"There are a lot of older farmers looking to pass the farm on to the next generation," he says.

And that has been the program's goal all along: To enable local family farms to both stay in the family and to remain farms.

Developing programs to help farms and farmers move into the next generation is a necessary focus these days, says Rob Sirrine, extension educator from Michigan State University.

He points to the fact that much of the most desirable farmland is also desirable for development. "[Our region] is one of our most threatened areas – among the top twenty in the nation," he says.

That imminent threat might be part of the reason the Conservancy was able to enroll enough farms to meet their goal – a total of 5,016 acres, representing 28 family farms – less than two months after launching the program.

And the key is that those are family farms. Nelson and Sirrine note that the ability to continue farming through generations is a key to halting the dismantling of family farms in favor of residential development.

"We're seeing a resurgence in people that want to farm," Sirrine says. "We have a lot of people interested in being farmers."

Another part of the program is the availability of education and seminars for ensuring the farm remains in the family. Sirrine says that is an integral part of the program and its success. Setting up plans ahead of time for passing the farmland on and not stumbling into roadblocks like inheritance taxes that can make it unaffordable is essential.

It's not just those involved with the program that are touting its success. Other groups, such as Heart of the Lakes Center for Conservation Policy, Michigan Farm Bureau, American Farmland Trust, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, Legacy Land Trust and the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy are looking at it as a model.

"We're in a similar position," says Susan Lackey, Executive Director of the Legacy Land Conservancy, serving Washtenaw and Jackson counties. "We have more interest in farmland protection than money to be able to do it."

One difference is that there is some public money available through a millage, but Lackey says that was basically shoehorned into a land protection millage. "We can use it on farmland under specific circumstances," she says.

"We think [a program based on the Leelanau FarmAbility model] is a way to keep farmers who may not be interested or eligible in the county program."

Nelson says the success thus far makes it look likely they will begin Phase II the beginning of next year.

"That's the next question: Is it time to offer another round? It is half a million dollars," he says. "We had to make sure we could raise that before expanding the program." BN