One way to keep farms from becoming subdivisions is to pay the farmers to never build on their land. This has been happening on the east and west coasts for decades. But it’s just now beginning to catch on in the Great Lakes region. In the second of a two part series on farmers and the decisions they make about their land, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Peter Payette takes us to a place where local government is paying to keep land in agriculture:
One way to keep farms from becoming subdivisions is to pay the farmers to never
build on their land. This has been happening on the east and west coasts for
decades. But it’s just now beginning to catch on in the Great Lakes region. In
the second of a two part series on farmers and the decisions they make about
their land, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Peter Payette takes us to a place
where local government is paying to keep land in agriculture:
Whitney Lyon’s farm has been in his family for more than a century. He has 100
acres of cherry and apple trees. The orchards are on a peninsula that stretches
fourteen miles across a bay in Northern Lake Michigan. His farm is about a half
mile from the clear blue water that attracts thousands of tourists here every
Lyon says real estate agents love his property.
“We run clean back to the bay on the north side… that’s view property. It’s
worth 30, 40,000 bucks an acre.”
But it’s not worth that much anymore. The rights to build houses on the Lyon farm have
been sold. The way this works is this: the Lyon’s keep the land, but they get paid
for the real estate value they give up to keep the land as a farm instead of house
(sound of apple picking)
There’s a thick fog across the peninsula today. Whitney Lyon is picking apples. His
wife Mary is inside watching kids. Mary says the day they sold the development
rights was the best day in their thirty years of farm life. She says she knew they’d
be able to stay on the land. And because of the money they made, she downsized her
“The big change, especially the last two or three years, I no longer just buy stuff
from just garage sales. I have actually been spending money on purchasing things for
the house. Which previously, everything came from garage sales.”
Many of the Lyon’s neighbors have sold their development rights as well. For ten
years, the township government has raised money to buy those rights with an additional
property tax. Almost no other community in the Midwest has a program like this. But,
if approved by voters, five more townships in this area might also start programs after
the November elections. Each township is separately asking voters to approve a property tax.
The American Farmland Trust has helped the townships design the program. The group is
excited because this would provide an example of local governments joining together to
protect farmland. Farmland Trust’s President Ralph Grossie flew in for a campaign event.
In a speech, Grossie told a crowd of about 100 people there’s a disconnect between farmers
and their communities. He says the community benefits from the farms while the farmers
struggle to make ends meet.
“We believe there is a middle ground here, there is a way to strike a deal between those
who manage our landscape – private farmers and ranchers, landowners – and those who
appreciate and benefit from that well-managed landscape. If you think about it, that’s
the heart of the property rights debate. Almost all those conflicts over property rights
are really about who pays for achieving a public goal on private land.”
Grossie says paying farmers with public money is the best option if a community wants to
keep farms. Otherwise, he says government forces farmers to pay when they give up profitable
uses of their land because of zoning laws. But a few in this crowd weren’t buying.
Some are opposed to more taxes on their homes or businesses so the township government can
write big checks to farmers. Others question if younger generations even want to farm.
(sound of noise from crowd)
And some are just plain suspicious of government. Roger Booth is talking to another
opponent of the propposal after the speech. Booth is explaining that when the right
to develop a piece of land is purchased, it’s gone forever. But he points out there
is one exception.
“Eminent domain. And who’s going to decide eminent domain has the right to take it? The
people in power of government at the time. Not today. Thirty years from now.”
Government also has an image problem because prominent local farmers often sit on the
town boards. It’s hard not to notice they could be the ones cashing in on the public treasury.
Critics also point out these programs tax farms to save farmland. And they say buying the
deveolopment rights does nothing to improve the business of farming. Supporters admit this
doesn’t guarantee future success for farms. But they say at least it gives the farmers a
chance to keep farming instead of selling to developers.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Peter Payette.