U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
There’s a hidden gem in the 990-page Farm Bill that President Barack Obama came to Michigan to sign last Friday. Senate Agricultural Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow fought hard for a $1 billion program that will enable Michigan conservation organizations and local governments to keep our state’s most unique farmlands in agriculture.
The new Agricultural Lands Easement program will provide grants to purchase conservation easements that permanently restrict development on important farmland and reward landowners who participate in the program with permanent tax breaks. These voluntary agreements will ensure that land stays in agriculture and continues to be an important — and growing — part of our state’s economy. The predecessors to this program have already conserved more than one million acres of economically and ecologically important agricultural lands. The new program will easily double that total.
Stabenow led the effort to pass this bipartisan bill, working with other Michigan leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, and House Agricultural Committee member Dan Benishek.
The national Land Trust Alliance, local land trusts, farmers and ranchers asked Stabenow to lead the fight to secure this funding — and she did. She also changed the law to allow the agriculture secretary to waive a local cash-match requirement in the grasslands reserve part of this new consolidated conservation program. This waiver will allow the program to protect the most important farmland, even if it’s in rural counties that don’t have the funding to match the federal grants.
But the question is: why does this land conservation matter to the vast majority of Americans who are neither farmers nor ranchers?
While producing livestock, fiber, and other agricultural commodities for all Americans, properly managed working ranch lands and farms protect important habitat for our wildlife and fish; and protect our water supplies and the water quality of our rivers and the Great Lakes. In addition, protecting these farms and ranches keeps farmers on the land, and is protecting an important part of our state’s economy.
Though these lands — including such unique resources as northern Michigan’s cherry belt — are productive and important for agriculture, without action they are very much at risk. Non-agriculture development overtakes 2 acres of productive agricultural land every minute. But conservation easement programs ensure that our state’s most beautiful and productive farm land will continue into the future.
Michigan has 30 land trusts that are members of the Land Trust Alliance and they have protected more than 85,000 acres with conservation easements alone. Nationally, the land trust community has protected 37 million acres, an area larger than the Midwest farm belt.
You don’t have to look far to find tangible examples of how this legislation will benefit our community. Rob Manigold is a fourth generation cherry farmer. For 25 years he was the Old Mission Peninsula Township supervisor and led successful farmland preservation efforts that included the permanent protection of nearly 6,000 acres of land, including over 5,000 acres of farmland.
Rob and his wife, Lois, have personally protected 70 acres of farmland that they own. They own another 36 acres that is currently “unprotected” located adjacent to protected farmland in the village of Old Mission and in the past has been under pressure for subdivision development. When Rob learned about the impending passage of the Farm Bill and the inclusion of the waiver provision, he expressed interest in a 50 percent bargain-sale whereby the Federal Program would provide half the value of his development rights and he would donate the other half as a match.
“Lois and I are at retirement age now. Selling development rights on the original homestead farm that has been in our family since the 1890s would help us to pass it on to my son who is now a fifth generation cherry farmer.”
That is why the Farm Bill’s Agricultural Lands Easement program makes both economic and ecologic sense for Michigan and for America.
Glen Chown is the founding executive director of Michigan’s Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.