Environment Picture

Variety of strategies used to help keep Michigan farmland from disappearing

Michigan boasts some of the most productive agricultural soils in the world. The diversity of our farm production is second only to California, and farming contributes more than $60 billion each year to Michigan’s economy.

Unfortunately, much of our most productive farmland is at risk. According to the American Farmland Trust, 86% of our fruits and vegetables are grown in the path of development, and we’re losing more of our best farmland to development each year. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Land conservancies, local governments and even the state and federal governments are working with farmers on a voluntary basis to purchase the development rights on farmland. This approach provides financial and tax benefits to the farmers and ensures that Michigan’s working farms will remain in agricultural production.

There are no easy answers, however, to funding such programs. Some places in Michigan, most notably in Grand Traverse and Washtenaw counties, have successfully adopted initiatives to pay for farmland protection with tax dollars in individual townships. But many more have been frustrated at the ballot box by a citizenry concerned about the loss of farmland, but unsure about how best to respond.

In Leelanau County, for example, voters last November rejected an initiative that would have funded local farmland protection efforts through a 15-year millage run through the county government. In response, the Leelanau Conservancy is looking at new and innovative ways to protect our globally unique and acutely threatened working farms.

A number of states have committed significant public funds to farmland protection. These programs feature everything from relatively significant pools of state money to tradable tax credits, allowing even low income farmers to take full economic advantage of the benefits of preserving their land.

In comparison, the funding available for protecting Michigan farms pales in comparison, and the current state budget situation suggests this is unlikely to change in the near future.

Finally, federal tax benefits exist that allow farmers to deduct up to 100% of the value of their agricultural easements, providing a real incentive for farmers to donate their development rights to conservancies and others. These benefits are set to expire at the end of this year, however, and there is no indication that an extension will be passed in time.

Michigan farms feed people here at home and across the country, and agriculture represents a significant share of our state’s economy. By protecting this resource, we can ensure that opportunities exist for future generations to keep farming in Michigan and that all of us have access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food.
-Dan Scripps, Leelanau Land Conservancy
© Copyright Michigan Environmental Council, All rights reserved