washtenaw county farmland, and the issues facing local farmers

Over the past week or so, I’ve been exchanging notes with Susan Lackey, the executive director of the Washtenaw Land Trust. Here, with her permission, is our conversation. As it pertains to food security, local organic growing, and a number of other things we discuss here on the site regularly, I thought that you might find it of interest.

MARK: I just received a letter from a fellow that contained the following piece of information, and, when I began thinking about how I’d verify it, it occurred to me that you might know.

“In Washtenaw County between 1990-2000, we lost 50,000 acres of farmland and rural open space.”

By my calculation, that’s 78.125 square miles, or close to 11% of our total 710 square miles of land… Do you know if that is in fact the case? And, if so, how much more have with lost since 2000?

Also, would you happen to know how much farmland, or potential farmland we have in the county at present? And is there an accepted way to calculate how much land it takes to feel a population? The last I heard, Washtenaw Country had 350K people. Have we already grown beyond our capacity to feed ourselves?

SUSAN: That’s probably a good number. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that 78 sq. miles has been converted to development. A closer look suggests that a lot of this is land that has gone from active farming to fallow land. The farmers in this county are aging (average age over 57). Many of them are retiring, and have no successors, because their kids don’t want to (or feel they can’t) farm, and so the land sits. Some would have been willing to sell to developers, if only because the land represents the only source of retirement income many farmers have. However, once you get out of the interstate corridors, developers were never particularly interested in farmland, and now there is really no developer interest at all. The current challenge for them (the former farmers) is how to hang on to land that is still being taxed, but no longer producing.

We’ve estimated about 250,000 acres of privately owned, undeveloped land in the county, much of it west of US-23. If you’re interested, we’ve got a map that shows all the prime farmland over 40 acres in the county and it is pretty dramatic. [note: The map is reproduced below]

I don’t know the question about ‘how much does it take to feed a population?’ Vegetarian or meat eater? Arid climate or temperate? North America or Africa? Soil type? Too many variables. Cuba manages to provide a diet of something in the neighborhood of 2000 calories, plus or minus, a day for its population on the island itself. We could — if we chose to do so — feed Washtenaw County on the available land, I think, but it would mean a significant adjustment in the nature of our diet. If it got to that point, of course, we could and probably would go to ‘victory gardens’ and people’s front flower beds would become veggie plots, we’d reduce or eliminate meat in our diets, which would reduce the amount of either cropland or pastureland needed. We’d raise chickens in our backyards. (oops –already going there).

OK — here is a piece of good news to leave you with. The number of farms in the county is actually increasing, as more small specialty crop farms are springing up. (These are the ones that provide local food.) The question remains as to whether these farms will be able to support the families that work them. However, the more of us who choose to spend the money necessary to buy local, the more likely this is to happen.

MARK: It’s interesting you should mention Victory Gardens. I’ve been thinking about starting a modern Victory Garden campaign (in order to get people back to the land, and diminish the shipping of veggies across the country, thereby cutting down on the food miles traveled and the petrochemicals used). I’ve had a number of discussion with Amanda Edmonds (Growing Hope) and others concerned with food security issues, but, up till now, my involvement has been pretty minimal, other than occasionally writing about composting and encouraging the growth of our local farmers markets and restaurants that serve local, seasonal food. As much as I like the idea of initiating a modern Victory Garden movement, I’m thinking now that the most bang for the buck might instead be to recruit young farmers to the area, and set up mentorships with older farmers, or something along those lines. (Of course, we could do both concurrently.)

SUSAN: A Victory Garden campaign is a great idea. Most of us can’t grow all our veggies in our yards. But there are any number of advantages to ridding ourselves of our ‘drug dependent yards’ and planting veggies in lieu. (Avalon Housing had a guy in a few weeks ago who wrote a great book on this subject.) If you don’t want to go full tilt, you can do herbs and greens mixed into perennial beds, patio gardens, all kinds of things. I personally think that once people begin doing that, they will appreciate the extra cost that can be a part of buying from small, local farmers, and willingly pay it for the added taste and health.

The young farmers issue is one that several of us have been ‘noodling’ of late. It is critical. In Vermont they have a very strong farmer mentoring program, but a much different farm culture than in the Midwest. Some of the issues: cost of land in a (still relatively) high priced real estate market; cost of equipment; cost of housing — since the cheapest way to get into farming is through land leases; entrepreneurial challenges for young farmers who know how to grow a crop, but may not understand the business of farming. In short, capital, business skills and marketing…a refrain that will be familiar to you, but I don’t think there are ‘C-level’ folks out there with an abiding desire to make minimum wage working in the cold and heat.

MARK: What’s the role of your organization in all of this Susan? As I understand it, the Washtenaw Land Trust is looking to protect natural and agricultural areas, so I can see how protecting farmland would be part of your mission, along with advocating against sprawl and acquiring land for the purposes of keeping it green, but I guess I’m curious as to the extent you’re interested in seeing farming increase locally. Is that something that you can direct your time and resources toward at the Washtenaw Land Trust, or is it just a personal interest? I’m just trying to figure out how all the local pieces fit together concerning local food production.

As for farming, I’ve thought about it, but, at my age, I think I’m too old to get started. I don’t want to complain and make it sound like I’m worse off than I am, but as my back already goes out once or twice a year, I can’t imagine being able to do the amount of work necessary. I have thought, however, of getting more involved in related businesses. (I visited the Farmers’ Diner in Vermont no too long ago and got inspired.)

SUSAN: Farmers Diner — very cool. There is a huge need for those related businesses, because, of course, without local markets, farmers will continue to grow commodity crops. Many will anyway, because of course that is how their farms are set up, and what they know. What’s needed is a new generation of bright, young businessmen/farmers with an interest in new markets.

Good question on the farming/land trust. Our strategic plan says quite clearly that protecting farmland is necessary but not sufficient to protecting farming. Toward that end, I serve on the leadership team for Food Systems Economic Partnership, and am regularly involved in discussions about teaching the business of farming to possible new farmers. This is, of course, an economic development problem. But it is also a cultural problem — do you want to lose those old farm families who make up the backbone of the community? This get’s layered on top of all the food security and pure selfish interest in knowing what name my hamburger used to go by. And, of course, while the current real estate market relieves the development pressure, it also removes a possible retirement stream for these farmers, and then you get into the human issue of land rich/cash poor, and what kind of retirement are these old farm families being limited to.

Four years ago, our strategic plan was very clear that we had our narrow niche in this, and we’d chat with the other players. We’re reworking our plan now, and I suppose it’s possible that we’ll take on a more expanded role. What that is, I’m a little unclear at the moment, but enlightenment will come, I’m sure.

It’s pretty exciting work, all in all. And I get up every morning wondering what will happen next.

MARK: I’m having trouble seeing the risk to old farm families that you allude to, Susan. Are you saying that, if we encourage new farmers to begin working the land in Washtenaw County, that it could siphon business away from our existing farming families? I suppose that could be the case, but my impression, being a member of a CSA with a waiting list for a few years now, is that the local demand for organics isn’t being satisfied. So I don’t see how a new organic farm, for instance, would put pressure on an existing family farm producing soybeans. I would agree with you, however, if you were suggesting that there would be a downside to bringing farmers in who would be competing head-to-dead with existing folks… So, with all of this said, what’s the answer for Washtenaw County?

SUSAN: I think I was trying to cover too much in one thought. The ‘cultural problem’ is this: as the old farm families leave the business (and their kids and grandkids choose not to farm) we lose that cultural framework of families who have made a living from, and cared for, the land since statehood. They formed strong communities, and were the folks who took the time to sit on township boards, volunteer for the churches and build a lot of the institutions that we think of as part of the fabric, particularly of the smaller communities like Manchester, Chelsea, etc. That’s a different issue than the economic development aspect.

The supply/demand issues are — as always — complex. There are CSA’s looking for new members, and there are CSA’s that are over-subscribed. Some of it is an issue of how much marketing they do. There are other farms selling direct to consumer through the farmers markets, roadside stands, or their own customer lists. There is also a disconnect in the supply chain relationships, as institutional buyers, restaurants, etc. are challenged to find suppliers who can meet their needs on a year-round basis. Again, these are standard business development challenges that occur in nearly any industry, and farming isn’t exempt from them. It is one of the reasons that the commodity farmer is so reluctant to change his business model to grow more product for direct consumer sales — he has a huge investment in equipment, and established supplier/purchaser relationships, and no good business person is anxious to tamper with those, as you know.

Clearly, there isn’t a conflict between commodity farmers and specialty crop farmers. Again, thinking of this as an economic development problem, I would argue that ‘the more the merrier.’ A critical mass of farm business is needed if professional services providers and lenders are going to understand their needs. And a critical mass is needed to make sure that the equipment dealers, wholesalers, processing facilities, etc. continue to be around in a decent proximity to where the farmer works. (Think industry cluster.)

MARK: Could you tell me a little more about the Food Systems Economic Partnership? What’s their charge?

SUSAN: FSEP was founded several years ago to foster agricultural economic development in Wayne, Washtenaw, Monroe, Lenawee and Jackson counties. It has projects looking at new business formation, economic analysis, farm-to-school, etc. It is a coalition that includes county government, MSU extension (particularly the product development center), and folks like the MSU organic farm program, Agrarian Adventure, conservancies, etc.

MARK: What local resources are presently available to people who might be interested in pursuing farming as a career?

SUSAN: There are a couple of well-worn tracks. One is to study at MSU, either in the organic program, or the conventional agriculture program. It is still one of the best resources in the nation for the business and practice of farming. Another is to apprentice/intern with a CSA or other specialty farm. These tend to be the best tracks for folks who don’t have the benefit of having grown up in a farm family. There are other ideas under consideration, that aren’t yet ripe enough for discussion, but in other parts of the country there are incubator programs, mentoring programs, boot camps and a host of things that you’ll recognize from more conventional entrepreneurial development. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately…retaining a healthy farming economy is no different than retaining any other business niche.

MARK: You brought up urban chickens earlier. Have you come out publicly one way or the other on the issue?

SUSAN: Nope.

MARK: Is there anything else that my readers need to know relative to local food production?

SUSAN: Two things.

1. Those of us who don’t farm, need to be more acutely aware of the fact that this is a business, and that farmers are business people first and foremost. If I were a farmer today, I’d be asking myself this: “If I change my business model to move from commodity farming to specialty crops and/or local food, is that new market a stable one? Or, is it a fad, and will I lose my former markets only to find myself unable to make a living in the new one?

2. As consumers, we need to vote with our pocket book — ask where our food comes from; know that ‘organic’ and ‘local’ aren’t synonymous, and make a decision on which is more important to you; understand that — like in any other business — quantity reduces price, and be willing to pay more for local foods, grown in smaller quantities. And make sure your supermarket knows this is important to you, so that they will keep trying to find the local growers necessary to stock our local shelves. This is going to take time, and we need to keep at it.

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8 Comments

  1. mark
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s weird, but coincidentally, I received an email newsletter with the following job posting today:

    Description:
    Independent contracting position reporting to the FSEP Executive Director, and working as a facilitator of the Agri-food Regional Skills Alliance (RSA) and member of the Business Innovation and Networking Team, works collaboratively with FSEP teams, and RSA partnering organizations to provide business planning services to maintain and grow the regional agricultural economy and make agriculture a thriving component of communities in Southeast Michigan.

    Requirements:
    Bachelor’s degree in business, agriculture, communications, community organizing. MS degree preferred. Demonstrated ability to develop leadership. Ability to manage multiple & varied tasks. Biz experience working with entities that have budgets, boundaries, expectations, and profit motive. 2 yrs of work experience in business, community, or economic development. Position requires travel using personal vehicle to sites in 5 county region of SE MI. Est start date is 1/5/2009.

    E-mail resume to fikej@ewashtenaw.org
    Website: http://www.fsepmichigan.org

  2. Brackache
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Ouch, shit.

    I just hit my head on my laptop from tripping over myself to help with the Victory Gardens, yard farming thing. What needs doing? I’m not an expert in it by a long shot, but I’d like to get started doing something to make it happen.

    Just so no one starts liking me too much though, I am militantly pro choice on eating tons of meat and using pesticides.

    Can we get our new City Council rep to represent us on the urban chicken/goats issue, since he’s supposed to represent his constituents’ wishes on stuff?

  3. Paw
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Can someone explain the map to me? Does each blue rectangle, rhombus, or whatever represent a 40 acre parcel capable of supporting agriculture? And does that just mean that there’s nothing built on the site, and that the soil looks good? It has nothing to do with current availability, whether or not it’s covered with forest presently, etc, right?

  4. Brackache
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I guess the blue parts are 40 acre+ parcels of owned prime farmland? And the green parts are just land with good potential to be farmland, owned or otherwise? The white parts are lava, and the red lines are like in Missile Command.

  5. Brackache
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    What confuses me is that some of the parcels are in the lava.

  6. Suzie
    Posted December 10, 2008 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Paw- Correct, this version is just showing everywhere with prime ag soils, overlaid with the parcel outlines of every parcel 40+ acres. The white areas are soils that are not considered prime ag soils (though in some cases they may be being farmed, esp. in Sharon & Manchester twps). The active ag data and current ground cover is not showing on this version. (We don’t have those layers in house right now- the County does, though, and they generously help us with a lot of that kind of mapping.)

    PS- There’s lots of cool mapping data online for Washtenaw County (including aerial photos from multiple years) at:
    http://www.ewashtenaw.org/government/departments/gis/MapWashtenaw_Main.htm

    -Suzie H.

  7. Kelp
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Let’s say I wanted to start farming, or, more realistically, working weekends on a farm to learn more about the process. Is there some kind of formal program, or would I just contact a CSA and offer my services?

  8. Posted December 14, 2008 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    sign me up.

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