To those of us who don’t farm, the vitality of Leelanau’s agricultural culture can seem as guaranteed as a beautiful sunset over Lake Michigan or as predictable as trees turning in the fall.
Once you take a closer look, you realize that our agricultural heritage is the product of intentional and deliberate hard work to ensure that this essential part of Leelanau remains robust and beneficial for present and future generations of residents and visitors.
Leelanau’s character is inextricably linked with the strength and integrity of its family farms and the succession of farmland to novice farmers and ranchers.
Farmers are stewards of the land
Agriculture in Leelanau is deeply linked to what we love most about our peninsula: varied and fresh seasonal produce and staples all year round, breathtaking panoramic views, uninterrupted habitat corridors for native wildlife, a strong local economy and a tight-knit community of people who care about each other.
Unlike other parts of the country where the farms are owned by large corporations, most of our farms are owned and operated by people who live, work, participate in local civic activities and send their children to school in our county. .
Local farm families are still largely the stewards of their land. They have a strong interest in protecting the land, water and scenic character of Leelanau, which improves the quality of life for humans and non-human inhabitants. Let’s help them run the Leelanau farms in the future.
Farming Fruit is deeply Leelanau
Leelanau is at the northern end of the “West Michigan Fruit Belt”.
Our unique nationally and regionally recognized soils, and our microclimate – created by our proximity to Lake Michigan – provide the perfect backdrop for fruit crops like cherries, wine grapes and apples.
Our strong fruit economy, in turn, supports local agritourism. With the freshwater lakes and forest landscapes of our peninsula, you have the perfect mix for a booming tourist economy.
Protecting farms protects natural lands
Many people may not realize that the farmers of Leelanau also own and care for a huge percentage of our natural landscapes. For generations, the farmers of Leelanau have been the primary stewards of the lands we love.
In Leelanau, it is not uncommon for half of a farmer’s land to be made up of natural features such as forests, wetlands and streams. The agricultural conservation easements we use to permanently protect farmland typically include terms that also permanently protect natural features commonly found on Leelanau farms.
The proximity of Leelanau’s farmlands to natural lands also means that farms can act as buffers between human development and natural habitats that benefit from being less exposed to human interference. Agricultural conservation easements ensure that these natural buffer zones remain intact.
The threat: development in agricultural countries
The conversion of Leelanau’s agricultural land to non-agricultural uses is not a new threat to the agricultural culture of our peninsula, but it is persistent and growing. Losing a farm here or a farm there may not seem urgent at first, but the long-term impact can be irreversible. The fragmentation of productive agricultural land by residential and commercial development has a cascading effect that decreases the viability of neighboring farms.
Agriculture is a community effort. Fewer farms mean fewer processing facilities nearby and fewer opportunities to share resources like equipment and labor. This increases the cost to farmers and decreases the chances that locally owned and managed farms can remain viable. The weakening of Leelanau’s agricultural economy would have devastating effects on local jobs, agrotourism and access to fresh local food directly to customers.
Farmers’ markets and farm stalls may be how most residents and visitors to Leelanau interact with farming, but most farms cannot survive on these means alone. Farmers need easy access to markets where they can wholesale their crops. Fragmentation of farmland threatens this critical economic engine and, in turn, our access to fresh, local produce.
Increased sales pressure
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased people’s interest in living in rural areas like Leelanau. This has led to higher land values and increased the incentive and pressure on farmers to sell their high quality agricultural land for non-agricultural development. We are working diligently now to support families who want to protect their farmland in perpetuity, even though the temptations to sell their land may be stronger than ever.
Leelanau Conservancy needs your support to provide a viable alternative for local farmers so that we can help ensure that Leelanau’s strong agricultural culture can get through this tumultuous time.
Protect the farms forever
The Leelanau Conservancy’s farmland protection model permanently prevents the conversion of farmland to non-farm use while providing farmers with much-needed capital. Farmers are paid up to 75 percent of the development value of the land when they create an agricultural conservation easement with the Leelanau Conservancy.
This good work is also happening in other areas of Northwestern Lower Michigan through our land trust partners at Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and Little Traverse Conservancy. Landowners use these funds according to their needs and often reinvest in the farm, for example by modernizing equipment, renovating infrastructure or diversifying crops, thereby strengthening the viability of their farm.
Together, we can provide these indispensable tools that can protect Leelanau’s agricultural heritage in perpetuity! Thank you for your interest and support in keeping local farms viable.
To find out how you can help, contact Meg Delor at [email protected]
Kim Hayes is Director of Farmland and Easement Programs at the Leelanau Conservancy. Meg Delor is Director of Development. Sara Michael is responsible for charitable giving.