Washtenaw, What’s Your Farmer Grow?

Also, greenbelt's first 1,000-acre block of protected land

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.

Jennifer S. Hall, Peg Kohring

Greenbelt advisory commission chair Jennifer S. Hall, left, talks with Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund prior to GAC's Dec. 8 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

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]

Catherine Riseng, Tom Bloomer

Greenbelt commissioners Catherine Riseng, left, and Tom Bloomer. Bloomer owns Bur Oaks Farm in Webster Township, where the greenbelt recently reached its goal of protecting a 1,000-acre block of open space. Bloomer's farm makes Rabble Roasters, a dry-roasted soybean snack, and Bur Oaks gourmet popcorn.

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.

Peter Allen, Dan Ezekiel

Peter Allen, left, talks with Dan Ezekiel before the start of the Dec. 8 meeting of the Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission. Both serve on the commission. Allen is a local developer, while Ezekiel – the commission's vice chair – is a science teacher at Forsythe Middle School.

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]


  1. December 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm | permalink

    There is a tension in viewpoint and objectives between supporting the commodity farms (mostly corn and soybeans) and other local farm operations. You have mentioned diversity, an important measure. Also the local food production index, another one.

    The question of supporting large commodity farms vs. smaller producers of diverse crops is mirrored by and affected by the national farm policy. As you indicated, national grants favor the large farms, and many aspects of national farm policy are skewed in this direction.

    Here’s the problem: are we supporting farmers (agricultural farming businesses) regardless of crop, simply because we want to keep local farmers in business? (Commodity farms ship to national and international markets.) Or are we prioritizing conserving valuable cropland (to some extent a nonrenewable resource) regardless of current crop uses? Or – as I hope – are we realizing how important it is to maximize food production for local consumption, as a food security measure? There are good arguments on all sides.

    I think the GAC shows good sensitivity to these issues and is approaching them carefully. Congratulations to them for the shift to supporting smaller farms (as at least one consideration).

    Personally, I’d like to see us stop producing corn for ethanol. It is actually energy consumptive and is a waste of good cropland.

    Thanks again for your comprehensive coverage.

  2. By Stephen Landes
    December 13, 2010 at 6:17 am | permalink

    As I understand the purpose of the green belt program it is to create and protect a green belt around Ann Arbor. There is nothing in this program that implies we are going to use a government program to control, guide, adjust, or influence the farming practices of the property owners. All the program does is buy development rights: the program does not give us the right to influence the use to which the farmer puts his/her property.

    Whatever this contracted staff does to collect census data on the uses of this property is inappropriate meddling in private business. The commission needs to focus on acquiring the development rights of property important in creating and maintaining the green belt, not trying to become some sort of Soviet-style agricultural commission to assure food production the way some people want it to be.

  3. By mae
    December 13, 2010 at 9:06 am | permalink

    I’m trying to think about how this information affects the possibility to eat local produce — my thoughts at [link]

  4. December 13, 2010 at 10:32 am | permalink

    Re (2): I hasten to say that I did not intend to imply that any governmental body should tell people what to grow. I absolutely agree that purchase of development rights does not give GAC or any other body the right to dictate business on the protected acreage.

    That said, the taxpayers of Ann Arbor do have the right to consider what incentives they wish to provide in making these purchases. In talking with people informally, I have found that those who supported the Greenbelt millage did think it would help bolster the local food supply. Unfortunately, because the millage was also sold on the idea that Ann Arbor would not pay more than a certain percentage of the purchase price, Federal standards (for grant applications) were applied, which resulted in small farms being disqualified and even in CAFOs being allowed (surely not what Ann Arbor taxpayers envisioned in voting for the millage).

    So while the ultimate use of a property should not be dictated (other than to prohibit development), choices can be made to purchase rights for smaller (less than 100 acres, say) properties that are more likely to provide local food, rather than restrict those purchases to very large properties, which are more likely to be commodity farms. This may mean that we have to forgo some Federal grant money and rely on our own and township millage monies.

    Then it is up to all of us to make sure that those locally directed farming operations are viable businesses (by buying their products).

    Additional note: the word “Greenbelt” is misleading, since most of the available properties, and those already purchased, are to the north of Ann Arbor. It is more that we are establishing an agricultural reserve. That is a good thing in itself.

  5. By Dan Ezekiel
    December 13, 2010 at 1:31 pm | permalink

    I agree with most of comment 1 & 4, Vivienne, but not this:

    Additional note: the word “Greenbelt” is misleading, since most of the available properties, and those already purchased, are to the north of Ann Arbor. It is more that we are establishing an agricultural reserve. That is a good thing in itself.

    I prefer the metaphor “Emerald Necklace,” since Greenbelt implies a continuous band of preservation. But it isn’t true that most available or preserved properties are north of A2. Looking at the map of current Greenbelt properties, , you can see that there are a large group of preserved farms in Ann Arbor Twp., north of town, as well as Webster Twp., northwest of town (including one that isn’t yet on the map as of today, 12/13, the Ledwidge Farm referenced in the story above).

    However, you will also see three open space projects in Scio Twp., west of town, two beautiful farms in Lodi and Pittsfield, south of town, and three properties in Superior Twp. and one in Salem, east of town. More Greenbelt projects are in the pipeline, in many directions, not just north.

    Don’t forget that Scio and Pittsfield Twp.s have, on their own, preserved many hundreds of acres of farmland and open space, as has the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy in Superior. The county, on its own, has also preserved natural areas in almost every township.

    Though these county, Scio, Pittsfield, and Superior properties don’t appear on the Greenbelt map, because the city didn’t fund them, they are certainly part of the Emerald Necklace of open space and farmland that is being preserved in every direction around Ann Arbor. The townships, county, private nonprofits and city work together to plan and coordinate land preservation through Preserve Washtenaw.

  6. December 13, 2010 at 2:02 pm | permalink

    Dan, I like the term “emerald necklace” and also the idea it represents. But though I’m happy to hear about the farms in Lodi and Pittsfield, what you are saying supports my statement that most of the properties protected with the Ann Arbor Greenbelt millage are roughly north of Ann Arbor (I consider Superior and Salem townships to be in that category, though they are also considerably east).

    I was responding to the previous commenter’s interpretation of the purpose of the millage being to make a literal greenbelt (an enclosing green ring) around town without regard to its land use. That was never true even of the original map. My use of the term “we” in that paragraph was meant to refer to Ann Arbor, through the GAC.

    Yes, there are many good land preservation efforts apart from the Greenbelt and they are all worthwhile. I’m a contributor to the Legacy Land Conservancy and the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy and was encouraged by the renewal of the county natural areas millage. That program has been highly effective.

    I’m not familiar with Preserve Washtenaw, but it sounds logical.

  7. By Mary Morgan
    December 13, 2010 at 2:09 pm | permalink

    Here’s a .pdf file showing preserved land in Washtenaw County [link] – it’s a bit dated (from 2008) but includes parks and natural areas, greenbelt property, and protected land in the townships. It was on the Preserve Washtenaw website, which Dan Ezekiel mentions. The site also has additional information about the dozen or so programs that have protected land in the county.

  8. By John Q.
    December 13, 2010 at 9:35 pm | permalink

    Webster Township has a report on their PDR activities from March 2010: [link]

    A current map of protected properties in the Township showing the block of AG land protected: [link]

  9. By George Hammond
    December 14, 2010 at 5:01 pm | permalink

    From the 12th paragraph: “The main crops produced in the county are corn for grain farms, soybeans and wheat for grain.”

    This sentence doesn’t make any sense.

  10. December 14, 2010 at 6:51 pm | permalink

    In the 7th paragraph, “Agricultural products account for $5.7 billion in sales statewide, with $3.3 million of that coming from crops and the remainder from livestock.” From the MDA link later, that should be $3.3 billion-as-in-10^9 in crops.

    Further in the MDA statewide report, I see the line item “Total amount spent by consumers on food (estimate) $23,186,200,000″. I was originally struck by the difference between value of ag products and amount spent by consumers as being very large, but then realized that the amount spent by consumers includes all of the processing, preparation, packaging, shipping, etc., costs, and now I think I’m actually impressed by how /small/ the gap between value of ag products and amount spent by consumers is.

    Drilling down to the County-level, it looks like Washtenaw has a slightly larger producer-consumer gap, %-wise. $189M in farm product value; $1.066B in consumer spending on food.

    Also interesting at the County level: estimated pet populations. 199k in Washtenaw.