Greenbelt Explores Support for Small Farms

Federal housing grants could offer funding options

The main topic of discussion for the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission’s November meeting could be distilled into this: How can the greenbelt program support the development of small farms, and ensure that farm properties remain farms, even when the property changes ownership?

It’s an unlikely resource that might actually be able to help answer those questions: the federal housing programs administered by the Office of Community Development, a joint county/city department.

Jennifer Hall, OCD housing program coordinator, attended the Nov. 4 meeting of the greenbelt group and floated some ideas for how federal funding might provide resources to retain land for the farming community.

The commission also heard from the managing organization of the greenbelt program, The Conservation Fund, about strategies for preserving small farms.

Ensuring a Farming Legacy

Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund, which is under contract with the city to manage the greenbelt program, gave a presentation to commissioners designed, she said, to give them something to “chew on.” She reported she’d recently attended a conference hosted by the Land Trust Alliance, a national organization, and had come back with some ideas about how to preserve farmland in this area. To see an example of the kind of thing that’s possible, Kohring suggested that commissioners go online to view a clip from a documentary called “The Last Crop,” about an attempt by owners of an organic farm in California to make sure their land remains a farm for future generations.

Kohring outlined several ways that farmland could be secured for farming. One option is an agricultural easement stipulating that at least 50% of the landowners’ gross income, averaged over five years, comes from farming. Another option might be for the city, via the greenbelt program, to own the land, with a farmer signing a long-term lease to use the property.

Commissioner Tom Bloomer, a farmer from Webster Township, wondered why there couldn’t just be a deed restriction on the land, limiting it to agricultural use. Kohring said that one issue was the cost of the land itself. New farmers don’t necessarily have the capital to buy the land, she said. Leasing the land to farmers would make it more affordable for them.

Carsten Hohnke, city council’s representative to the greenbelt commission, asked how these other approaches differed from the purchase of development rights (PDR). He noted that just recently the greenbelt advisory commission had approved a deal that would allow a family to sell their farm at a lower price, because of the greenbelt PDR. [See Chronicle coverage: "Frederick Farm in Line to Join Greenbelt"]

Kohring said that none of the greenbelt’s conservation easements – the agreements which put restrictions on property, such as preventing dense housing developments – have required that the land be farmed. The easements put restrictions on what it can’t be used for, not what it must be used for. It would be possible to buy a farm, for example, and use the land as a large mowed back yard, she said.

Laura Rubin, the commission’s chair, clarified that there were two issues of concern: 1) making farmland affordable for new farmers, and 2) permanently restricting the use of the property to farming.

Commissioner Jennifer Santi Hall brought up the fact that Ann Arbor Township had received a federal grant to explore the development of sustainable agriculture. From the project’s website:

The primary outcome of this project is to establish small farms producing for regional markets using purchase of development rights (PDR) to reduce land costs, improve farm profitability and preserve farmland in a near-urban setting. Ann Arbor Township, with its proximity to the City of Ann Arbor and its ample open space and farmland, is an ideal location for this initiative.

In the short term, the project will identify and introduce interested landowners and potential farmers to learn about opportunities to work together and establish small farming operations. In the intermediate term, those relationships will be established and farmers will be encouraged to seek guidance in formulating sound business plans to meet market demands. The long-term outcomes (third year and beyond) will be to have established several operations and to share the results and lessons of our work with others in the immediate region, before reaching out to southeast Michigan, the entire state and beyond.

This project is being viewed as a demonstration for other communities interested in agricultural profitability, land use at the urban/rural interface and local food production. It is expected that new relationships will be created, small farm operations will be established, more local food and other produce will enter the marketplace and lessons will be learned to provide insight and establish the area as a center for innovative approaches to preserving farmland.

Commissioner Dan Ezekiel said that the greenbelt commission’s committee on small farms had been discussing this issue too, in light of the commission’s efforts to prioritize farmland within the greenbelt program. Unfortunately, he said, the size of properties that would be ideal for small farms would also make it attractive as a large estate with a single house. Even if the greenbelt program buys development rights with the expectation that the land be used for farming, right now there’s nothing to prevent the land from being used merely as a residence.

Kohring encouraged commissioners to consider ways that they might institutionalize the commitment to small farms.

Affordable Housing for Farmers

Jennifer L. Hall, housing program coordinator for the Office of Community Development, talked to greenbelt commissioners about how the Urban County program might be a path for helping to make small farms affordable. The Urban County is a consortium of townships and cities within Washtenaw County that are eligible for the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which funds low- and moderate-income housing, infrastructure and other community development projects.

Hall said that for the Urban County’s federally-funded affordable housing projects, restrictions can be placed on the property with regard to the buyer’s income level at the time of purchase. Owners can also be restricted from reselling the dwelling to anyone who doesn’t meet those income requirements. She said that the Urban County hadn’t targeted farms in the past, but there was no reason why they couldn’t use federal dollars and apply the same income restrictions for someone purchasing a small farm through the Urban County’s housing program.

Right now, 11 jurisdictions are part of the Urban County partnership. They include the cities of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, and the townships of Ann Arbor, Bridgewater, Northfield, Pittsfield, Salem, Scio, Superior York and Ypsilanti. Nationwide, dollars are awarded to designated urban areas and urban counties based on a calculation that includes factors such as population, poverty rate and infant mortality rate, among others. Locally, an Urban County Executive Committee, chaired by county commissioner Leah Gunn, determines how those funds are used within the participating municipalities, which propose projects for consideration.

Hall said that rural communities who participate in Washtenaw’s Urban County might be excited about a focus on small farms. York Township, for example, is considered a “donor” township because it typically contributes more federal dollars to the Urban County pool than it gets back in projects.

In response to questions from commissioners, Hall said that funds could be available for rehab as well as new construction. The deed restrictions – requiring that the property be sold to people below a certain income level – would apply in perpetuity. The owner’s income level could increase while they owned the property – the only thing that mattered was their income level at the time of purchase.

Commissioner Gil Omenn said that the program seemed to offer more options than they’d previously considered. The harder question, he said, is whether they feel strongly enough to promote this approach. “That’s a whole other level of activity,” he said.


  1. By Jack F
    December 1, 2009 at 12:42 pm | permalink

    This is wonderful. As long as you don’t use MY tax dollars to do this–the 2 mills of ‘greenbelt’ tax that allows liberal yuppies to feel good about themselves and provides social welfare to business models that can’t sustain themselves.

    The same handful of folks (I won’t bullet point their names) show up on every one of these groups–build ugly art at the new Court Police Building, tear down Argo Damn and now pay walfare payments of our tax dollars to ‘small farms’. Fine–use Federal tax dollars, donations, or hold bake sales. And ditch the ‘greenbelt’ tax when the city of Ann Arbor can’t even afford to mow or maintain parkland in the city.

  2. By Julie
    December 1, 2009 at 2:54 pm | permalink

    I couldn’t disagree more, Jack. I am very happy to use some of my tax dollars to support small family farms in the area, because having them here is very important to me, in regards to the health and well-being of my family and my community and my environment.

    Happily, there appear to be many of us who feel this way.

  3. By AntiRedRidersNo1
    December 1, 2009 at 3:52 pm | permalink

    There are no yuppies in Ann Arbor.

  4. By Jack F
    December 1, 2009 at 5:00 pm | permalink

    Then you need to write a check to a foundation, a charity or better yet, pack up your family and buy your own farm and grown your own food. I would rather my tax dollars go to fixing our third world streets and bridges and going to public schools–not on ‘family’ (mom and pop and two kids?) farm welfare. That money is for greenbelt land, you know so the folks with seven figure houses don’t have to have any riff raff move in next door as in affordable housing.

  5. By John Charles
    December 2, 2009 at 10:04 am | permalink


    Because you’re posting anonymously, it’s impossible to tell if you have volunteered any of your personal time, as the people you’re criticizing do, to serve on these boards. You probably have not, because you don’t seem to understand that these board members did not impose the greenbelt tax, or the percent for art tax, or any other tax. Voters did. Years ago. The folks on these boards are ordinary citizens who were asked to serve their city, and they’ve done so.

    Don’t like taxes? Wish the city’s funding priorities were different? Don’t like the commissions’ recommendations to council? Well, it’s a free country. Vote. Run for office. Volunteer for a commission. Serve. That’s what democracy is about. What you’d find in the process is that even the people you disagree with are fundamentally decent, and are grappling with complicated issues and making difficult calls every time they meet. Plus you’d have the opportunity to make actual decisions and be accountable for them, rather than spouting criticism that you don’t even have the courage to put your name to.

  6. By Jack F
    December 2, 2009 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    Lol. Righteous anger. There ARE a handful of people the good Mayor seems to appoint to boards and anyone who doesn’t toe the line gets booted (ala the DDA Board members who weren’t reappointed because they opposed several of the Mayor’s plans).

    I won’t list any names but you can be sure if any of his ‘folks’ voted against any of his bullet point issues, they’d be gone in a flash. Ask Rene Greff or David DiVarti.

    I still think anyone in city government should fill out a financial disclosure statement, including the Mayor, Council Members and all members of boards and commissions. And true, ultimately the Mayor answers to the voters. He’s got a lot to answer for if he runs for reelection next year.

  7. By Luis Vazquez
    December 2, 2009 at 12:40 pm | permalink

    How about subsidizing the stall fees for Washtenaw County farmers to sell at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market? That could perhaps draw more interest in growing produce within the county, and provide an incentive to those farmers to increase their presence. This could be a relatively low-cost option for the city or county.

  8. By Julie
    December 2, 2009 at 8:41 pm | permalink

    Well Jack, I could say the same to you… “pack up YOUR family” and move somewhere where the majority of voters feel as you do, as you are clearly dissatisfied with the will of the voters here in Ann Arbor. I don’t make the rules. But I do vote. And I will reiterate… family farms are VERY important to me. So I vote to fund them. Simple as that. Public schools and roads are also very important to me. I vote to fund them as well. I do get the feeling, however, that many who argue as you do against generating a particular revenue for some public good by pointing to OTHER public goods that need said revenue (schools, for example), DON’T vote to support those either, when the time comes.

  9. By Rici
    December 2, 2009 at 10:57 pm | permalink

    Anyone who thinks we have “third world roads” clearly hasn’t spent much time driving in the third world…

  10. By Jack F
    December 3, 2009 at 6:23 am | permalink

    I don’t remember voting for a ‘family farm’ millage. Maybe you can do a petition drive and put that on the ballot. I DID vote for the school millage, even with reservations about the transparency of the A2 Schools budget, I DID vote for the 2 ‘extra’ mills for city roads and see that process is a total planning fiasco (Stadium Bridges?) AND I did vote for the greenbelt millage, even though I thought it was just a drop in the bucket and mostly symbolic. But if you think people who are basically sympathetic with these issues are going to continue to be when tax dollars are wasted and now we’re talking about those funds helping raise chickens, you and your friends are living in a bubble. It’s the worse Michigan economy in 80 years but here we have a board of the usuals making sure ‘greenbelt’ money might go to ‘family’ farms. This isn’t Mayberry and some people in elected office and public boards seem to be oblivious to reality.

    And no I’m not moving anywhere. Sorry. Wish I could write more but I have to go write a check for my winter property taxes.

  11. By Julie
    December 3, 2009 at 8:52 am | permalink

    OK, Jack, sorry I boxed you in with my assumptions. But I see “greenbelt” as totally consistent with local family farms. That’s greenbelt to me!

  12. By John Q.
    December 3, 2009 at 10:57 am | permalink

    Maybe Jack can go back and read the article and let us know where the “2 mills of greenbelt tax” is going to be spent on what he claims it is going to be spent on. I don’t think any of Jack’s attack on the proposal has any factual basis but perhaps he can show us otherwise.

  13. December 3, 2009 at 11:16 am | permalink

    I’m impressed with the work of the Greenbelt Advisory Commission to redirect land purchases (or rights purchases) to small farms. These are more likely to produce foodstuffs that we can actually consume locally. Many of the GB purchases in the past were for large commodity farms that primarily produce corn and soybeans for export. I believe that when Ann Arbor taxpayers voted for this program, there was a picture in the minds of many of a small family farm where urban dwellers could purchase healthful fresh food.

    The GB is doing a great job in sorting out all the issues. One that I would like to see them address is to reverse the earlier ordinance change to allow CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). This was done because state and federal farm preservation programs (heavily influenced by the agribusiness lobby) prohibit giving money to programs that restrict CAFOs. The council changed the ordinance in order to preserve those sources of funding. But if we are going toward smaller lots, and with the help of the hosting townships, it might be better to forgo those funds altogether in order to prevent small farms from being used for CAFOs. (I don’t think that such an operation requires a very big parcel.)

    The townships may have some objection to making parcels government-owned, if that shrinks the tax base. But it sounds as though a lot of creative solutions are being explored.

  14. By Gale Logan
    December 3, 2009 at 12:17 pm | permalink

    I agree there is a good work being done by the Greenbelt program.

    If you look at the tight restrictions on the erection of new buildings on Greenbelt protected lands you see that CAFO’s would be impossible. CAFO’s are kept out but the Greenbelt still gets to use the millions of $$ that come in from the federal ranch lands program.

  15. December 3, 2009 at 1:14 pm | permalink

    Regarding #14: I don’t have any basis to judge whether that conclusion is accurate or not. It would certainly be good to verify that.

    In #1, Jack F. mentioned 2 mills of greenbelt tax. I found a description on the city website indicating that the Parks and Greenbelt Ballot Proposal, passed in 2003, was for 0.5 mills for 30 years. There is also a Parks Maintenance and Capital Improvements Millage, passed in 2006. It is for 1.10 mills for 6 years.

    Both of these millages have been “Headleeized” by annual reductions so that the mills this year were 0.47790 and 1.09690, respectively.

    So there is no “2 mills of greenbelt tax”, even if you take the parks maintenance millage into account, which would not be accurate since it is not used for purchase of land.