Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting (Dec. 8, 2010): Here’s one thing that greenbelt commissioners learned at their Wednesday meeting: Washtenaw County contains 166,881 acres of farmland, yet the county ranks low on an index that gauges an area’s ability to produce enough food to meet the needs of local residents.
Staff gave an overview of agricultural production statewide and in Washtenaw County, with the goal of providing some context as commissioners consider how to support local farmland within the greenbelt. It’s an issue that’s emerged frequently at previous GAC meetings, and one that the commission’s chair, Jennifer S. Hall, said they’ll be continuing to address in the coming months.
Farmland also played a role in reaching a milestone announced later in the meeting: With the recent acquisition of development rights for the Ledwidge Farm in Webster Township, the greenbelt program has completed its first 1,000-acre block of protected open space. The news prompted a round of applause from commissioners.
Agriculture in Michigan, Washtenaw County
Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program, which voters approved in 2003, is funded through a 30-year Open Space and Parkland Preservation millage and allows the city to buy developments rights for property within a specified boundary surrounding the city. [.pdf of greenbelt map]
The greenbelt has included farmland from the start, but because federal matching dollars are available only for larger farms, those have been given priority. Over the past year or so, the greenbelt advisory commission – which oversees the program and provides recommendations to city council about which properties to protect – has been discussing ways to support small farms as well. Part of those conversations have focused on the definition of “local” food, and on the issue of the greenbelt’s role in ensuring a sustainable local food network. [See Chronicle coverage: "Greenbelt: How Best to Support Small Farms?" and "Leveling the Field for Small Farms"]
Within this context, Ginny Trocchio and Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund – which has a contract with the city to provide staff support for the greenbelt program – gave a presentation on Wednesday with data on agriculture in Michigan and Washtenaw County.
Agriculture is the state’s No. 2 industry, Kohring noted. There are about 56,000 farm parcels statewide, covering over 10 million acres. Agricultural products account for $5.7 billion in sales statewide, with $3.3 million billion of that coming from crops and the remainder from livestock.
The state’s southeast district – which includes Washtenaw, Wayne, Genesee, Lapeer, Lenawee, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland and St. Clair counties – is No. 1 in the state for whole food (foods that are unprocessed or unrefined), dairy and meat processing, as well as organic farming, the amount of acres producing tomatoes, and the value of direct-to-consumer sales.
Yet the district ranks low on the local food production index, a measure developed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. The index looks at the quality and diversity of a region’s agricultural production. The southeast district has a 7 out of a possible 100, Trocchio reported. Washtenaw County has a 9, and Michigan’s index is 30.
There are 1,300 farms in Washtenaw County, covering 166,881 acres, Trocchio said. The average farm size is 128 acres, based on 2007 census data – the most recent available. Crop sales account for 75% of the market value of agricultural products in the county – or $54.84 million. Livestock sales are valued at $18.35 million. [.pdf of Washtenaw County agricultural profile]
Tom Bloomer, a greenbelt commissioner who owns Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township, clarified that there are actually far fewer farm businesses – the 1,300 figure represents farmland holdings, he said, and some farm businesses include multiple parcels.
The census reports that the largest portion of Washtenaw County farms – 599 – are 10 to 49 acres. There are 372 farms between 50-179 acres each. Only 27 farms are over 1,000 acres, according to the census. The main crops produced in the county are corn for grain farms, soybeans and wheat for grain.
The census reports that there are 1,984 farm operators in Washtenaw County, but that figure includes much smaller growers, such as backyard gardens that sell produce at local farmers markets or roadside stands, for example. Demographic data showed that the majority of those operators – 1,903 – are white. There are 248 farms with a woman as the principal operator.
Trocchio also provided information about where farms protected by the greenbelt program are selling their agricultural products. Farthest afield are non-GMO (genetically modified organism) beans shipped to Japan and countries in Europe. Corn is sold throughout Michigan for ethanol plants, and corn, wheat and soybeans are sold to ADM and Michigan Agricultural Commodities. Food that’s sold in Washtenaw County includes hay for horses, maple syrup, lamb, beef, farmstand vegetables, popcorn and wool, among other things.
Agriculture in Michigan, Washtenaw County: Commissioner Comments
Peter Allen said he keeps seeing references to Michigan being No. 2, behind California, in agriculture. In what way does Michigan rank second, he wondered.
Tom Bloomer, a farmer from Webster Township, replied that Michigan is second in diversity of products. Allen then asked what the state’s top five crops are. By value, Bloomer said, the top five would include dairy – assuming you consider that a crop – as well as corn and beans. In aggregate, fruit might be on the list, he said – apples and cherries would certainly be high. Kohring said she’d follow up by getting that data from government agriculture sources.
Bloomer noted that Michigan tops all states in the production of certain crops, including blueberries, tart cherries and navy beans. “We grow a lot of different things in large quantities,” he said.
Jennifer S. Hall thanked Trocchio and Kohring for their presentation, saying it was helpful in terms of terms of contemplating what it means for food to be local, and how that relates to the greenbelt. She noted that although the report doesn’t quantify the amount of food generated by greenbelt-protected farms, it does indicate the diversity of products produced here.
The commission started talking about local food production in terms of small farms, Hall said, but that seems limiting. The report is helpful in thinking about what their priorities should be, she added, and to gauge what the greenbelt program is accomplishing.
Kohring wrapped up the presentation by noting that when they talked with farmers, most indicated that they sell their products in whatever market will yield the highest price. That made the very dynamic nature of the market hit home, she said.
Greenbelt Property: Acquisitions, Grants
During her staff report, Trocchio told commissioners that with the recent closing of the deal to buy development rights from Ledwidge Farm in Webster Township, the greenbelt program had completed its first 1,000-acre block of protected land – one of the program’s stated goals. The news was met with a round of applause from commissioners.
By way of background, at its Nov. 15, 2010 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council had approved up to $179,025 for the Ledwidge purchase of development rights (PDR). The resolution noted that the farm’s owner, Norman Ledwidge, contributed 10% of the $468,039 appraised value of the deal, while $182,535 of the PDR cost was covered by a federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) grant awarded to Webster Township. The township has its own millage-funded land preservation program, and contributed $59,676 to the deal.
Ledwidge Farm is located at the northwest corner of Joy and Zeeb roads, adjacent to two other protected farms. The greenbelt PDR protects 65.17 acres of the farm.
Trocchio noted that on the same day as the Ledwidge closing, Webster Township closed on two additional properties: (1) 78.41 acres on Mast Farm, at the southeast corner of Mast and Gregory roads; and (2) 76.63 acres on Sullivan Farm, on the west side of Mast Road north of Gregory Road. The city’s greenbelt program did not participate in those deals.
Trocchio said the greenbelt program is gearing up for other closings before year’s end, including two more in Webster Township and one in Northfield Township. In addition, Ann Arbor Township expects to close on two properties before the end of the year, she said – that township also has a land preservation program.
Earlier this year, the Ann Arbor city council approved three other greenbelt agreements that are in the works. In addition to the Ledwidge Farm PDR, at its Nov. 15 meeting the council approved $182,939 for the Bradley D. and Mary J. Clark Farm, also in Webster Township. The 33.7-acre farm is located on Farrell Road, adjacent to the Webster Church property that was protected by the greenbelt program in 2009. In this deal, the owners are contributing 20% of the $174,000 appraised value. The farm is too small to qualify for federal grants. (Closing, due diligence and endowment costs are part of the deal, coming to a total of $43,739.)
Also on Nov. 15, the council approved $145,154.50 for the 74.17-acre Edward C. and Muriel Pardon Farm in Ann Arbor Township. The farm’s appraised value is $556,783. The township is contributing $141,979.50, with another $272,824 coming from an FRPP grant.
And on Dec. 6, the council approved a participation agreement with Webster Township regarding the 146.1-acre Gilbert L. Whitney Farm, located at Webster Church and Farrell roads in Webster Township. The council had committed $1,125,592 toward the PDR at its July 6, 2010 meeting, with $418,470 of that to be reimbursed by a FRPP grant. The Dec. 6 agreement relates to a $50,000 contribution toward the project by Webster Township.
Greenbelt Property: FRPP Grants
At Wednesday’s meeting, Trocchio announced that the deadline for applying to the next cycle of federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) grants is mid-February. Usually the deadline falls later in the year, she said, so the earlier date caught them by surprise. She said she and Kohring would be talking with commissioners and city councilmembers about applications for those grants in the coming weeks.
Dan Ezekiel pointed out that given the stepped-up date, they’d be looking for nominations for potential acquisitions as soon as possible.
As is typical for the greenbelt commission meetings, the group later went into a closed session to discuss land acquisitions. When they emerged, they voted on two resolutions related to FRPP grants – both were unanimously approved.
The first resolution recommended that the city council approve applying for FRPP grants on four potential greenbelt properties. The properties were identified only by application number – the properties aren’t revealed until they are voted on by the council.
The second resolution directed staff to move forward on appraisals needed for FRPP applications, allocating up to $20,000 for that purpose, pending approval of the commission’s executive committee, and with an end date of February 2011.
Present: Peter Allen, Tom Bloomer, Dan Ezekiel, Jennifer S. Hall, Carsten Hohnke, Gil Omenn, Catherine Riseng, Laura Rubin
Absent: Mike Garfield
Next meeting: Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 at 4:30 p.m. at the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners boardroom, 220 N. Main, Ann Arbor. [confirm date]