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Published in Food/Agribusiness
Shady Side Farm in Olive Township in Ottawa County.  Shady Side Farm in Olive Township in Ottawa County. COURTESY PHOTO

Farmland preservation tools aim to lock in ag land uses for future owners

BY Sunday, April 24, 2022 06:14pm

With farmland disappearing at a steady clip in Ottawa County, Julie Lamer and her colleagues are working to develop a toolbox of resources to preserve area farms.

The county’s Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program is one such resource and was recently responsible for permanently preserving yet another 123 acres of farmland in the area, ensuring that it will never be subdivided or developed.

“(The PDR program) is just one of the tools in our toolbox that we’re trying to build,” said Lamer, Ottawa County’s farmland preservation analyst. “It’s a long process to go through, but it is a program that works and it does provide stability and preservation for the property.”

When it comes to succession planning in the agricultural industry, preserving land — or earmarking it for the next generation — is one foundational task. Aging farmers who lack a family member in line to take over farm operations can put the farmland in jeopardy. 

The scenario is partly to blame for the vanishing farmland in Ottawa County, where officials have estimated that the county lost 17 percent of its farms and 8 percent of its farmed acreage between 2012 and 2017. Additionally, commercial developers are offering big dollars to further entice farmers to sell. 

Permanent preservation

Through Ottawa County’s PDR program, the county either purchases development rights to actively farmed property, or receives them as a donation, to create a permanent agricultural conservation easement.

The landowner donates a minimum of 26 percent of the fair market value for development rights but is paid the rest through a combination of state and federal grants.

The Ottawa County Agricultural Preservation Board uses a point system to score applicants based on sustainability practices and selects one or two properties each year to preserve.

“We have a lot of interest in the program,” Lamer said. “Unfortunately, we have to purchase this from the landowner and we don’t have a lot of funds available. We work with a couple of grant opportunities, but we’re continuing to look outside of just state grants and federal grants and looking into other programs that can help provide funding for the program.”

“This year, I’ve had over 20 calls interested in hearing about the program,” Lamer added. “(Landowners are) not necessarily taking the time to fill out the application, but the word is getting out and it’s starting to build some good traction.”

Shady Side Farm in Olive Township was the latest to go through the PDR program, receiving a $168,750 grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) to protect five parcels of land totaling 123 acres. This is where first-generation farmer Mike Bronkema raises sheep and cattle while growing organic dry beans, corn, wheat, oats and barley.

Bronkema and his wife are the sixth farming family in Ottawa County to protect their land through the program, which now has created permanent agricultural conservation easements on 566 total acres of farmland.

Bronkema purchased the farm in 1992 from a seller looking for a buyer who would continue to farm the land. Bronkema said his concern is to responsibly manage the farm now that it will endure for generations.

“The hard part is that I’m getting paid for something that everyone else from here on out will have to put up with,” Bronkema said. “I have to be a little conscientious of that and say, ‘OK, what do I do with these farmland preservation funds that I received for a farm that may or may not stay in my family?’”

Bronkema lacks a family member who plans to take over the farm in future generations. But, like Shady Side’s original seller, he has always wanted to keep it in the agricultural industry.

“You need to find that right person, and when you’re looking at a farming pool that is less than 2 percent of the entire nation, that’s a pretty small pool we’re working with,” Bronkema said.

In addition to the PDR program, Ottawa County officials have created the MI FarmLink program, which provides succession planning resources for farmers who are fairly notorious for skirting this important bit of estate planning.

“That’s a big barrier that we’re finding — farms just don’t have a plan,” Lamer said.

Constant pressure

Farmland preservation remains crucial to the agriculture industry statewide. 

Chip Kraus, program manager at MDARD’s Farmland Preservation Office, works with seven other staff members to manage 41,000 active farmland agreements that total roughly 3.1 million acres throughout Michigan. That’s about one-third of all Michigan farmland.

The department also offers local grant programs to support municipalities, like Ottawa County, in preserving farmland.

“Farmland is always going to be seen as the easy target for development because it’s usually some of the flatter ground and some of the ground that requires less fill to be brought in to be developed, so I think that pressure will always be there,” Kraus said.

The state has long utilized the Michigan Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act to preserve farmland for anywhere from 10 to 90 years. Under the law that was enacted in the 1970s, the landowner enters into an agreement with the state to preserve the farmland for a specified period of time in exchange for income tax benefits and exemption from special assessments on the land.

“We get approximately 18,000 phone calls a year on our main line, and a lot of those calls are just general questions on what the program is and why it is advantageous for them to get it. Ultimately, it does have to get into a discussion on what they think is in their best interests,” Kraus said.

For some statewide farmers, locking down their land is simply unappealing.

“We can tout the benefits of it — the farmland credits and preserving the farmland to continue ag use and preventing development from creeping in — but ultimately it does get down to some people not wanting to lock down the property for a set number of years, or forever if it’s an easement,” Kraus said. 

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