Next Crop Shortage? Affordable Farmland

Mary Brower and her husband, Aaron, relocated to northern lower Michigan several years ago in search of affordable farmland. Together in May 2012 they launched Bluestem Farm in rural Antrim County and in the years since built an active community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and even hosted a farm-to-plate dinner as a benefit for a nearby farmers’ market.

“My husband and I farmed on leased land in New Hampshire, but then we lost our lease,” Mary Brower said.

The couple couldn’t find affordable agricultural land in that part of the country, so they packed up and moved back to Michigan with their farming knowledge. They bought 80 acres through a loan with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and today offer their customers organic vegetables, pasture-raised eggs and meats. Customers can even build their own CSA shares from among the offerings and pick orders up at markets in Bellaire, Boyne City, East Jordan, Gaylord and Petoskey.

Mary Brower said she is “keenly interested” in possible ways to encourage more new farmers to do as they did at Bluestem Farm. “It will take something creative and ambitious to keep agricultural land affordable” in the Grand Traverse Bay region, she said.

This increasingly becomes the case as the area gains national attention for its natural beauty and mild summer weather – why visitors long-considered the area ideal vacation grounds and second-home territory. An improved economy in turn puts more pressure on landowners to keep agricultural-zoned property affordable for continued farming.

That is precisely why Zane Kathryne Schwaiger, formerly of the Leelanau Conservancy, said she now looks to expand on a recent farmland access feasibility study that during the last year brought together multiple organizations to focus on regional farm succession concerns, and various tools for farmland access for beginning farmers. The first part of the effort received $5,000 in funds through a Rotary Charities of Traverse City planning grant, she said.

“The motivation is all across the board. People are drawn to farming for all different reasons,” Schwaiger said, further explaining the lifestyle is family tradition for some and a way of independence for a growing number of others. She said there remains a real need to plan for future generations to continue farming land now tended by an aging population of growers, whether or not they are family relations.

The concern is real, according to a Michigan farm succession study published in June 2012, which revealed that across Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Kalkaska and Manistee counties there are nearly 700 farmers beyond 65 years old. Additionally, it’s estimated that about 83,500 farmland acres within that region will change hands within a decade and from among that acreage, more than 26,000 currently maintains no succession plan.

In that last category are Gene and Kathy Garthe, fruit farmers with 150 acres along the Lake Michigan shoreline west of Northport in Leelanau County. The long-time growers raised cherries, pears and apples through the years, along with their now adult children.

“The kids have all worked on the farm, but they’ve all gone on to do other things,” Gene Garthe said.

The Garthes’ plans for their fruit farm currently include the pursuit of a conservation easement with the local conservancy, they said, which will protect the site from commercial or real estate development. But that doesn’t always mean land will remain active farmland and not instead lay fallow as part of a quiet, country estate, Schwaiger said.

Some examples of ways to combat this struggle for affordable farmland and a need for new farmers, she said, is to: develop a database-style farmer-landowner matching program; a locally based low-interest revolving loan program for beginning farmers; farmland investment groups; and, possible specialized conservation easement language that allows for a conservancy or land trust to buy back land at agricultural value should it be sold to a non-farmer in the future. These are concepts in place in other parts of the country, Schwaiger said, and will become part of the dialogue she hopes to continue here in northwestern Lower Michigan, should her project again be funded.

“We need to reach out and talk to more farmers,” she said.

Gene and Kathy Garthe agreed Schwaiger’s plan to expand her study and develop a farmer network across the counties is an excellent goal.

“We like the idea of having partners to take care of things – young farmers,” Kathy Garthe said, adding that it will take true dedication by beginning farmers to succeed in the agriculture business, and perhaps Schwaiger’s research can help, particularly to literally connect teachers and learners in the fields.

“To give them the network is even more important. Unless you grew up with farming, it’s a big learning curve,” Kathy Garthe said. “I think she’s on the right path with that idea.”

Mary Brower said she also sees value in this project.

“I think there’s definitely a point in trying to match people to land they aren’t using because they are retiring,” Brower said.

Schwaiger said her intent is to house the study she hopes to continue at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Leelanau County, but really push for input from farmers in the farthest stretches of the multi-county area. She said now she plans to pursue a larger grant request, other matching grant opportunities and additional private funding for the project.

Anyone involved in agriculture in the region who wishes to learn more about Schwaiger’s efforts can contact her at 231-271-2266 or send email to zanekathryne@gmail.com.

 

 

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