Ann Arbor Greenbelt Advisory Commission meeting (July 14, 2010): Small farms and local food production again was a focus of the greenbelt advisory commission (GAC), as they considered revisions to easement language and scoring criteria for the greenbelt program.
The discussion prompted one commissioner, Dan Ezekiel, to underscore that they weren’t trying to favor small farms – they were simply trying to offset the advantages that the program has previously afforded to larger farms.
A review of revisions to the greenbelt program’s scoring criteria included a robust discussion about the meaning of “local food economy.” One of the proposed revisions would award points to farms that produce local food and contribute to the local food economy.
Commissioner Tom Bloomer, a Webster Township farmer, argued that all farms in Washtenaw County contribute to the local food economy, either directly or indirectly. Jennifer Santi Hall, who had proposed the change, agreed to withdraw the item from the scoring criteria so that they could refine the language. But she noted that it was important to find some way of including criteria for local food production, to align the scoring of applications with the greenbelt program’s strategic plan, which includes a section on the local food economy.
Later in the meeting, after nearly an hour in closed session to discuss land acquisition, the commission recommended allocating nearly $3 million in five separate deals, the majority of them for the purchase of development rights of local farms. Those recommendations will be forwarded to city council for final approval.
Support for Small Farms
Last month, at their June 9, 2010 meeting, the commission discussed possible changes to modify language in conservation easements for the city’s greenbelt program, as a way to accommodate small farms. It was one of several approaches first considered by a subcommittee on small farms that includes GAC commissioners Tom Bloomer, a Webster Township farmer; Dan Ezekiel, an Ann Arbor teacher and environmentalist; and Mike Garfield, director of the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor nonprofit.
It’s been difficult for farmers who own land that’s not eligible for matching federal funds – because of the farm’s small size – to participate in the greenbelt program. This is partly the case because typical conservation easements for the program stipulate that only 2% of land can be covered by an impervious surface, such as a house or roads. This isn’t an issue for large farms of 40 acres or more, but it’s different for small farmers with less acreage that want to build hoop houses, which might easily result in covering more than 2% of the land.
Based on feedback from the June discussion, GAC considered the following resolution at its July 14 meeting:
Motion to support revising the conservation easement language on an as‐needed basis in the following ways for small farms and local producers to support season extension production:
1. Allow up to 20% of the conservation easement parcel for development of non‐permanent agricultural structures, such as hoop houses, in order to support season extension, so long as it is consistent with the intended purpose of the conservation easement, in order to increase the potential agriculture production on easement parcel.
2. Continue to limit the amount of impervious surface development at 2% of the easement parcel for permanent buildings.
Before the vote, Ezekiel clarified that GAC is an advisory commission to city council, which will also have to approve this change. The purpose of the greenbelt program is to preserve land, he said – farmland, and in particular small farms, is just one type of land that can be part of the program. The proposed changes came about because the existing easement language – as well as federal funding under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, or FRPP – is tilted in favor of conventional kinds of agriculture, he noted: Larger holdings and row-crop farming.
Ezekiel wanted to clarify that GAC wasn’t trying to subsidize small farms or CSAs (community-supported agriculture). They were just attempting to make the program accessible to these types of farms, he said, so that owners of small farms could be considered for the program.
Peter Allen wondered how many farms were using hoop houses. Are they rare, or are they being used more commonly to extend the growing season? The question was fielded by Bloomer, who said they’ve been a major factor in vegetable production for a long time in this northern climate, and that farmers in Washtenaw County have been expanding their vegetable acreage. “For truly small farmers, that’s a necessity,” he said.
Jennifer Santi Hall said the change would give the program access to different types of farms on an as-needed basis. She pointed out that it wasn’t requiring the commission to approve a certain size farm for the greenbelt – it would just enable them to consider applications for small farms.
Outcome: The resolution revising the conservation easement language passed unanimously.
Changes to Scoring Criteria
Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund, who serves as staff for the greenbelt program under a contract with the city, presented some proposed changes to the conservation easement scoring criteria. She told commissioners that it was a follow-up to work they’d done a couple of months ago, looking at scoring criteria used by other easement programs nationwide.
The two major types of greenbelt acquisitions – agricultural land and open space – each have three categories of scoring: 1) characteristics of the land, 2) context and 3) other acquisition considerations. [.pdf file of scoring criteria, with proposed revisions indicated] When an application comes in for review, the parcel is awarded points based on this scoring criteria. Those scores are then used to evaluate whether the parcel is appropriate for the greenbelt program.
For scoring agricultural land, “local food” was added to the list of land characteristics for which points could be awarded. (Other items in that category include parcel size, the percentage of the property with wetlands or that’s in the floodplain, and the number of natural features on the land, among other things.)
The proposal called for awarding 15 points if the farm had locally produced food and contributed to the local food economy, and zero points if it did not. Trocchio said the addition of this item emerged from the commission’s discussions on small farms, and the fact that the current scoring criteria is geared toward larger farms and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) requirements. Awarding points for locally produced food would help level the field for smaller farms, she said. And if a larger farm also produces local food, it would score even higher, she noted.
Tom Bloomer objected to the wording of this addition. If the farm is located here, by definition it’s producing local food, he said. If the intent is to award points for food that’s consumed locally, then he didn’t believe that was a valid attribute. It implies that the program will enforce local marketing on landowners in the future, he said, and the program would be making an assumption about local food production that may not hold in 50 to 100 years. He also said he wasn’t sure what “contributing to the local food economy” means. It either needs a lot more definition, he said, or they should skip it.
Jennifer Santi Hall said she’d been the one who had suggested adding it to the scoring criteria, and that she’d welcome suggestions for change. Her intent was that the scoring criteria be consistent with their strategic plan. When they last updated the plan, they had added a section about the local food economy, she noted, and one of the action items had called for revising their scoring criteria to reflect that change.
The relevant section from the greenbelt program’s strategic plan, updated in March 2009:
Local Food or Other Crop Production
This year, the Greenbelt Advisory Commission has identified locally produced foods, agritourism, and other agricultural specialty products sold directly to local markets as an emerging issue. Our local markets, restaurants, non-profits, and most recently, the Homegrown Festival have all focused on the environmental, health, economic and community benefits of buying and selling local foods and other agricultural specialty products. In addition, we feel that a visible connection to our Greenbelt through the foods and other products that we buy and eat provides a tangible reminder of our preservation efforts. Local foods and other crops can find their way in to our Ann Arbor economy in a number of diverse ways: the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, local food stores, direct restaurant purchases from farms, U-pick farms, and even at larger chain groceries through regional food distributors.
Recognizing that the Greenbelt’s mission and direction is solely the protection of land, the Greenbelt program will make a priority to protect those farms that are producing foods for local markets. Even without this priority in our previous strategic plans, the Greenbelt program has actually preserved several farms that provide local food or other crops to the Ann Arbor area.
To date, the Greenbelt has focused on large parcels of active agriculture, however, many farms that are likely to produce vegetables or specialty crops for sale to our local markets or restaurants are likely to be less than 40 acres. Furthermore, these parcels are likely not going to qualify for Federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program grant dollars. As such, our existing scoring system precludes these types of farms from our consideration. The Greenbelt Advisory Commission will amend our scoring system to award points to those applications that are supporting local food production or direct marketing production.
1. Amend scoring criteria to provide points for local food production.
2. The Greenbelt will evaluate and approve a partnership with one local food producer, as the opportunity arises.
The important thing, Hall said, is that when smaller farms are evaluated, there’s a way to offset the points that are awarded for large parcel size, which gives an advantage to larger farms.
Another reason, unrelated to a farm’s size, is that any farm producing food that’s sold locally is important to taxpayers who are funding the greenbelt program, Hall said. People who live in Ann Arbor and voted to pay taxes for the greenbelt did that, in part, because they felt that some of what they were preserving would come back to them, in terms of food they could consume. “That’s an important linkage to make,” she said.
She noted that the scoring criteria change over time, and the scores are based on a snapshot of time – there’s no guarantee that the land will remain the same. It’s just a way of evaluating applications at the time they’re presented, she said. The actual easement language is what secures the expectations for future land use, she added, and so far there’s no language about local food in those agreements.
Dan Ezekiel said the scoring revisions move them forward, and he thanked Trocchio for her work. He suggested changing the wording to “food for human consumption,” noting that a lot of corn and soybeans produced locally are used for livestock. That might be a difference worth making, he said.
Gil Omenn clarified that large farms could be awarded points for this too. That prompted Hall to say that she thinks the focus shouldn’t be on small farms. The focus should be on food that will be bought and consumed in Washtenaw County or Ann Arbor. Saying she liked Ezekiel’s suggestion, she noted that if a farm is growing food for livestock that’s also being raised in the county, they shouldn’t exclude that. “The important thing is that it’s happening in the local area,” she said, ” … and not going someplace else.”
Laura Rubin asked Trocchio how the staff would apply this to an actual application. Rubin noted that assessing wetlands on a property also isn’t very exact, so some of these criteria aren’t fine-tuned.
Trocchio replied that in some cases it would be clear. An example would be farms that are CSAs (community-supported agriculture), where local residents buy shares in the farm in exchange for produce. But in other cases, it would be more difficult to track, she said.
Bloomer said that so far, every single farm they’ve preserved through the greenbelt program has produced some percentage of its product for the local economy – assuming the definition of “local” includes all of Washtenaw County, not just Ann Arbor. Every farm produces something for the local food economy indirectly, he said, so every farm they’ll consider will get the 15 points. It might be producing grain or hay that’s eaten by livestock that’s eaten by people. Trying to track that would be difficult, he said. Bloomer said he was not opposed to the concept, but he wasn’t convinced that this criteria was a good approach, as it was currently worded.
Mike Garfield asked Bloomer for an example of how a local farm might produce something indirectly. Bloomer pointed to the Merkel farm – how would that be scored? They produce corn and soybeans, but a large portion of their crops are sold to the Dexter Mill, which uses it to make birdseed that’s sold locally. “Do people eat it? No, but birds eat it,” he said. “It’s a big business in Washtenaw County, and it adds a lot to our economy.”
Garfield said it’s an important and difficult issue. They seem to be trying to get a handle on two matters, he said. One is a broad concept, which he said Hall was trying to get at – the segment of farms that are developing agricultural products to be marketed locally. Over the last couple of years, the commission has been looking for ways to promote that, he said.
Then there’s a philosophical issue, he said. There’s a legitimate view that says they should be in the business of preserving land, and that land saved for farming should be the priority, regardless of where those crops get marketed. But what they were trying to do with the small farms initiative was to find ways to encourage a certain kind of business practice, he said.
If you get beyond that question, then the way they define the issue of “local food” is quite difficult – and the proposed wording doesn’t capture it, he said. Garfield said he thought they were trying to get at the notion of giving points for farm operations that sell a significant portion of their product in the local region – which he would argue should extend even beyond Washtenaw County. “I don’t have a good answer for this,” he concluded.
Hall said she was willing to take out the local food criterion, so that they could move forward on the other revisions. But she wanted to flag it for future discussion or have a small group work on the issue. It’s important to have this in the scoring criteria, she said. It would also serve to give the program more information about the types of farms they’re protecting, she added – that kind of qualitative information is important for taxpayers to know.
Hall also said that taking this approach wasn’t unfairly judging business practices. They already do that with other criteria, she said. There are points awarded for agricultural land that has preserved natural features, she noted – that gets at the kinds of farming practices that are being used.
Ezekiel described the discussion as fascinating and worthwhile, but he agreed that they hadn’t clarified their own thinking about the issue yet. He said he hoped that they were in consensus on the commission that their one and only priority is to preserve land, rather than to promote any one kind of business practice. In the small farms subcommittee, they’d discussed how the current scoring system is unintentionally skewed in favor of a certain type of business – large farms – and that they were trying to unskew it. He said he would not like to be identified as a commission that promotes a particular type of business practice.
Trocchio then reviewed revisions to the criteria for open space greenbelt acquisitions.
One question brought up by Gil Omenn during the discussion of open space criteria was why such a low point value was given for land that had proximity to Ann Arbor – two points are awarded to land located within a mile of Ann Arbor city limits.
This prompted Ezekial to give a bit of history about how the scoring criteria were initially determined, and how the point values were awarded. The criteria are outlined in the ordinance, he noted. The first group appointed to the greenbelt advisory commission – himself included – went through a process to determine how many points to award to each criterion, by determining a rank order of the items. The end result: Criteria that few people thought were important were given low point values, he said, adding that maybe it’s time to revise the numerical values.
Rubin asked whether they were obligated to include the ordinance’s criteria in the scoring. Trocchio said she’d check.
Hall said she felt that proximity to Ann Arbor had been important when the vote was taken. She’d be hesitant to delete it. Garfield expressed surprise that it only got two points. Omenn said he felt it deserved substantially more. That was the problem with rank ordering, he added. If the item came out last in the ranking, then it would get very few points – and not necessarily what it was worth.
Outcome: The revised scoring criteria – minus the item on local food – was approved unanimously.
Election of Officers
Laura Rubin noted that she has served as chair for two years. She said that Jennifer S. Hall had expressed interest in being chair and that Dan Ezekiel was interested in being vice chair. Rubin moved those two nominations, and there were no others. Rubin received a round of applause for her service.
Outcome: The commission unanimously elected Hall as chair and Ezekiel as vice chair.
Staff, Commissioner Updates
Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund reported on several items. The greenbelt program had applied for funding in February 2010 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) for two properties, and had just received word that they have received grants on both: $418,470 for the 146-acre Whitney farm in Webster Township, and $260,910 for the 96-acre Honke property in Northfield Township.
[City council has already approved greenbelt purchase of development rights (PDR) for both properties. The city will spend a total of $707,122 on the Whitney farm and $457,357 for the Honke property.]
Trocchio also reported that at the end of June, the city submitted an application to the FRPP program through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for $1.3 million. She expects to hear about that award in August or September.
Also, Ann Arbor Township recently closed on a deal for the Zeeb property, Trocchio said, adjacent to the Kapp farm. She noted that the greenbelt program had been a partner in the Kapp purchase as well as the Zeeb deal, and that the properties are forming a nice block of preserved land along Nixon Road and Pontiac Trial.
They were expecting about 30 people on their first annual greenbelt bus tour, Trocchio said, which would leave from the Ann Arbor farmers market and travel to several locations highlighting land preserved by the program, as well as partnerships and elements of the greenbelt’s strategic plan. [The tour took place on Saturday, July 17.]
Communications from Commissioners
Dan Ezekiel pointed out that Ann Arbor continues to garner the lion’s share of agricultural funding that comes to Michigan, thanks to taxpayers approving greenbelt money to match those federal funds, and thanks to the program’s superb staff.
Tom Bloomer gave a report from last month’s Breakfast on the Farm event, held at the Horning family dairy farm in western Washtenaw County. He described it as a tremendous success, with 2,400 people attending – many of them from Ann Arbor. “We didn’t run out of food, but it was close,” he said. There were demonstrations of food production – including cows being milked – to show people who might not be aware of how powerful and important agriculture is in this county, Bloomer said. He described the farm as one of the premier dairy farms in the Midwest and even the country – not huge, but sophisticated and well run.
Mike Garfield noted that the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, at their next meeting on Aug. 4, plan to take up the millage renewal for the county’s natural areas preservation program (NAPP). He said that the greenbelt program has partnered with NAPP on many occasions. The county board recently amended the NAPP ordinance to make its funds more usable for agricultural easement transactions, he said, so there might be more opportunities for partnering with them in the future. [See Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw Natural Areas Tweaked for Ballot"] Garfield said they’d be keeping their fingers crossed on the fortunes of that program.
Jennifer S. Hall noted that the greenbelt commission had passed a resolution in support of the NAPP millage at its February 2010 meeting. She asked whether there would be a public hearing at the county board – if so, it might be imporatnt for the greenbelt commission to have a presence there, she said.
Motions Made Following Closed Session
The commission went into closed session to discuss land acquisition deals, and emerged about an hour later. They quickly passed five resolutions, without discussion, recommending greenbelt purchases to be forwarded to city council. Until the council approves these deals, the properties are identified only by their application number. If they are all approved, the acquisitions would amount to $2,947,905.
The motions recommended:
- making an offer of $1,247,000 for the purchase of development rights on a farm, if FRPP grant funds are awarded. If no FRPP funds are awarded but there’s at least a 20% match from other sources, it’s recommended that council move forward with the purchase.
- making an offer of $655,400 for the purchase of development rights on a farm, if FRPP grant funds are awarded. If no FRPP funds are awarded but there’s at least a 20% match from other sources, it’s recommended that council move forward with the purchase.
- making an offer of $725,000 for the purchase of development rights on a farm, if FRPP grant funds are awarded. If no FRPP funds are awarded but there’s at least a 20% match from other sources, it’s recommended that council move forward with the purchase.
- making an offer of $139,200 for a property, due to its adjacency to other greenbelt properties and the landowner’s willingness to donate 20% of the purchase price.
- contributing $181,305 toward the purchase of development rights of a Webster Township property, in partnership with Webster Township.
All of these items will be forwarded to city council for final approval.
Present: Laura Rubin, Jennifer Santi Hall, Peter Allen, Dan Ezekiel, Mike Garfield, Tom Bloomer, Gil Omenn, Catherine Riseng
Absent: Carsten Hohnke
Next meeting: Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010 at 4:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners boardroom, 220 N. Main, Ann Arbor. [confirm date]