In 2019, Becky Huttenga led a comprehensive survey of Ottawa County’s agricultural landowners in an effort to understand the industry’s most pressing needs.
Huttenga, Ottawa County’s economic development coordinator, and her team used that information to develop what is called the Focus on Agriculture Plan.
With issues that included succession planning, navigating the red tape of the zoning process, and basic economic viability, Huttenga pondered how to develop a resource that could help deal with them all at once.
“Understanding that we’re local government, there are only so many things we can do,” Huttenga said. “But, one of those things we can do is write grants.”
Specifically, the county pursued funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support activities already written in the Focus on Agriculture Plan.
The county’s proposal resulted in a $44,885 grant from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which Ottawa County used to create a website called MiFarmLink.org. The website pools together resources for beginning, experienced and retiring farmers while also forging partnerships with the private sector on important issues like succession planning.
The website quietly launched in May, and Huttenga and her team will continue to build it out in coordination with organizations like Michigan Food & Farming Systems and the National Young Farmers Coalition.
“We have no interest in reinventing the wheel,” Huttenga said. “We’re offering incentives on the succession planning side, but generally, we’re not creating any new resources. We’re giving them a way to go to one place and search and find a resource.”
Huttenga is on the front lines of efforts to preserve farmland in Ottawa County. She oversees the county’s Farmland Protection Program, which puts permanent easements on parcels to protect them from being developed.
Between 2012 and 2017, Ottawa County lost 8 percent of its total farmland and 17 percent of its farmers, mostly because of retirements. The data suggest that not only is the county losing farmland, but it’s specifically losing mid-size farms at a greater rate.
While the Farmland Protection Program is certainly one way the county can combat the loss of farmland, Huttenga said the program’s effectiveness is limited. Farmers who are aging out of the industry need to start thinking about what they’ll do with their land, she said. MiFarmLink is meant to be a resource in that process.
Through the website, farmers can receive a free consultation on succession planning and even seek a rebate if they go through the entire process.
“It really does come down to getting started and getting started early,” Huttenga said. “There isn’t any technical barrier or magical piece we can help them with. It’s incentivizing them to start that conversation. Succession plans require many conversations, and pulling many family members of different interests together. A lot of the conversations aren’t fun, and a lot of them create friction.”
Michelle Anthes, managing partner at Grand Rapids-based law firm McShane & Bowie PLC, has spent much of her career helping agricultural clients with corporate and estate planning.
Of the agricultural clients that her firm sees, Anthes estimated that more than 70 percent lack any sort of succession plan, putting large tracts of land in jeopardy when a farmer retires or passes away.
“Farmers don’t want to think about this,” Anthes said. “They want to farm. Usually what happens is someone dies and the kids are fighting over what to do with the land. That’s usually what gets them in front of me — they don’t have a plan, and I have to figure out how to mediate that.”
McShane & Bowie is one of the private firms partnering with MiFarmLink by donating attorneys’ time to have initial conversations with farmers about succession planning.
Farmers who are aging out of the business are also enticed by premium prices that developers are willing to pay for agricultural land, far outpacing what beginning or existing farmers can afford.
Anthes said large tracts of land are particularly hot right now. While farmers look to pay $3,000 or $4,000 per acre, developers are offering up to $15,000 per acre.
“They see that if they sell to developers they’re going to make way more money than if they kept farmland as farmland,” Anthes said. “I think a big part of it is to give them creative ideas so that it’s a win-win for everyone.”
“Really, what you have to have is farmers who are committed to helping farmers,” she added.
Payge Lindow serves as one of two assistants installed through a National Young Farmers Association pilot program in Michigan and Vermont that provides resources for beginning and small farmers, and those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
She said finding affordable land in Michigan is the biggest hurdle this demographic faces.
“I’m really excited for MiFarmLink and Becky’s project because, especially in West Michigan, most of the beginning farmers I talk to are just like, ‘I cannot find affordable land’,” said Lindow, who also manages Grow Jackson, a nonprofit focused on local food security.
“I really admire Becky’s work — a lot of it is connecting with larger farmers and hopefully getting them set up and to connect them with beginning farmers.”
Gaining access to affordable land becomes an even more layered issue for the BIPOC community, Lindow said.
“Especially for BIPOC and queer farmers, a lot of these folks are looking for urban land or land right outside of the city,” Lindow said. “Because if you go really rural, you probably, in a lot of cases, won’t feel safe out there or find community out there. If you don’t have a community surrounding you, it’s even more isolating and difficult.”
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