Protecting the Pastures

Sparta farmers Bonnie Robinson and Linda Bradford have some advice for those considering a move to one of those nice suburban developments that keep popping up in the country: Don’t do it.

“It smells out here,” says Robinson. “And farm equipment makes a lot of noise.” “You won’t like following those slow tractors on the road, either,” adds Bradford. Then there’s all that dust…

It’s not that Robinson and Bradford aren’t neighborly. They just want to preserve their way of life and an industry that is vital to the state's economy. And with urban sprawl an ever-growing threat to West Michigan farmland, count on hearing more about farmland preservation in the year to come.

Farmland preservation is the first line of defense against urban sprawl, perhaps the most basic land use controversy of the modern age. An equal-part economic, social and environmental concern, urban sprawl works something like this: Residents, shoppers and employers relocate from urban areas to undeveloped farmland or habitat.

Developers argue that turning farmland into residential areas brings more taxes to a community. Farmland preservationists point out development costs taxpayers a lot of money, too, creating the need for new infrastructure investment, including schools, highways (Hello M-6!), water and power, stretching tax dollars at the expense of established infrastructure.

“They don’t think about the sewers and roads and schools that have to be built,” Robinson explains.

Meanwhile, the migration creates vacant buildings and overcapacity for urban schools and amenities. Urban neighborhoods suffer while corporate-owned, big box shopping centers thrive. The environment is the worse for the number of cars on the road and the carbon usage increase that comes with any development, not to mention the elimination of green space and in many cases, a subsequent destruction of habitat.

So it’s good news that the region’s political and economic interest seems to be turning in favor of farmland preservation.

Major income generator
It’s not just the beauty and way of life that make farming so critical to the West Michigan community — it is a major income generator. Agriculture is our state’s No. 2 industry, worth $40 billion to the state economy each year, rivaling tourism in annual revenue.

Some sources say that one out of every four jobs in Michigan is somehow tied to farming. And two of the top five agricultural producing counties are in West Michigan: Ottawa (first) and Kent (fourth).

Perhaps most significant in today’s lackluster national economy, agriculture is one of the few industries experiencing record growth this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that the marketing year ending Sept. 30 was the Heartland’s most profitable on record, adding a net $140 billion to the U.S. economy and growing 60 percent over the prior year. Exports grew 40 percent to $114 billion.

Yet in Michigan, we are still losing more than 80,000 acres a year to urban sprawl. In fact, the state has the fourth highest farmland conversation rate (from farm to residential) in the country. From 1982 to 1997, the latest period for which data is available, Kent County lost 57 square miles of farmland, Ottawa County 20.

“Urban sprawl can ruin a farming community,” says Robinson, whose 600-acre dairy operation is in the Fruit Ridge area. “People move out here on an acre of land and find they don’t like what’s going on around them, hauling manure, the loud equipment. Then they start complaining.”

The road from rural community to suburban development is paved with simple math. Even with an increase in value of up to 10.2 percent last year, orchard land in the seven-county South West Michigan district, as defined by Michigan State University’s Department of Agriculture Economics, is still only $6,921 an acre. The state’s most valuable farmland by a wide margin (local field cropland averages around $3,500 per acre), it is still thousands less than the $9,739 per acre the land will fetch from a residential developer in a down market, or the $28,643 per acre it will earn for commercial development.

Farmers fight back
A coalition of local citizens’ groups, politicians, environmentalists and philanthropists are helping to protect West Michigan farmland as part of a national movement that stretches from Kent County, Maryland, to San Diego, Calif., and every rural community in between.

The cornerstone of the farmland preservation movement is a practice known as Purchase of Development Rights. It works like this: Money is used to purchase the development rights of the farmer’s land, paying the farmer an amount equal to the difference in value of the land if it were sold for new residential or business development. In exchange for selling these rights, farmers attach an easement to the deed held by the county that says the land can not be used for anything but farming, either for a period of several decades or ever again.

Obviously, the idea is to provide a financial incentive for the farmers to keep farming rather than sell their land to developers. And although some of the community’s highest profile activists have taken up the cause—including environmentalist and philanthropist Peter Wege, who recently donated 577 acres of Vergennes Township farmland to the program, the largest donation to date— Kent County’s PDR program has no where near the funds needed to preserve its goal of 25,000 of the county's remaining 173,381 acres of farmland by 2013.

The recent unseating of two long-time Kent County commissioners does bode well for the cause. Commissioners Fritz Wahlfield and David Morren lost seats this year to Tom Antor and Bill Hirsch, respectively, two challengers that ran on a farmland preservation platform.

“This was a huge victory for us,” says Bradford.

The Robinson and Bradford farms were two of seven local farms that benefited from the PDR program; in Robinson’s case 155 acres — used for growing hay and corn for their cows — were preserved; the Bradford farm had just 80 of its 1,400 acres preserved. “But we’re in the process of applying again,” she says, hopefully, of the farm that’s been in her family for five generations.

“This is something our whole family wanted,” says Robinson of her PDR. “Our son Lance graduated from college in law enforcement, but he decided he didn’t want to do that; he wanted to farm. So he’s really taken things over. But our two daughters also wanted our farm preserved. We didn’t want any houses to be built on it, ever.” (An exception would be if Lance ever decides he wants his home there.)

No more hayrides?
In a state known first for its tourism and automobiles, it is easy to overlook the significance of lost farmland. Even tourism could be affected: Would people from Indiana still come to visit our shorelines and forests if they drove through suburbs instead of rolling green hills to get there?

But one of the most serious issues, say preservationists, centers on the food we put on our table. With everything from e-coli breakouts to salmonella scares, where our food comes from is becoming a health and security concern. As any Saturday morning trip to the local farmers’ market will attest, people love buying locally-grown produce. In fact, the Michigan Department of Agriculture recently ran an ad campaign labeling state produce in grocery stores as ”Michigan grown” and sales increased by more than 100 percent.

No wonder — Michigan soil is primo for crop-growing. And its bounty is very diverse, too. Our state represents more than 120 different types of agriculture, with products ranging from beets and blueberries to apples and asparagus.

And here’s something else you may be surprised to learn: You know that new waste water treatment plant in Wyoming? Well, guess where all that waste (bio-solids) goes after it’s filtered out: It’s injected into farmland as fertilizer — a perfect example of natural recycling.

“It serves about 15,000 acres of nearby farmland,” says Gary Rolls, another pro-farming Kent County commissioner who chairs the Farmland Preservation Board, a local citizen’s advocacy group. And the key, he says, is location. “We couldn’t very well ship it up to the UP, it’d be too expensive,” he explains, adding that Wyoming has become a role model for other treatment centers in the state.

Rolls believes the more the general public learns about agriculture’s contributions to the state, the more involved they’ll become.

“I anticipate great things down the road as more and more people are educated about the benefits of preserving farmland,” says Rolls. “Not just for us, but for our children and grandchildren. After all, I don’t think any of us are going to stop eating.”

Keasha Palmer is a freelance writer who lives near Rockford. She recently wrote for Rapid Growth about Swedish transplants working in the Grand Rapids office of Configura.


The Bradford Farm

Bonnie Robinson and her dairy cows

The Robinson Farm

Linda Brandford on her farm

Sign commemorating the preservation at The Robinson Farm

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly is a commercial photographer and owner of The Photography Room. He has been Rapid Growth's managing photographer since it was launched in April of 2006. 

You can follow his photography adventures on his blog here.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.