What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect Michigan’s farmland from the disruptions of development?
American Farmland Trust’s new report demonstrates how developing farmland puts food security, the environment and our way of life in jeopardy.
5/20/2020, WASHINGTON, DC — Millions of acres of America’s agricultural land were developed or converted to uses that threaten farming between 2001 and 2016, according to “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States,” a new report by American Farmland Trust. The report’s Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard is the first-ever state-by-state analysis of policies that respond to the development threats to farmland and ranchland, showing that every state can, and must, do more to protect their irreplaceable agricultural resources.
“The State of the States” report shows the extent, location and quality of each state’s agricultural land and tracks how much of it has been converted in each state using the newest data and the most cutting-edge methods. The Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard analyzes six programs and policies that are key to securing a sufficient and suitable base of agricultural land in each state and highlights states’ efforts to retain agricultural land for future generations. It offers a breakthrough tool for accelerating state efforts to make sure farmland is available to produce food, support jobs and the economy, provide essential environmental services, and help mitigate and buffer the impacts of climate change.
The “Farms Under Threat” analysis finds that the growth of Michigan’s cities is resulting in the development of some of the most productive agricultural land in the state.
The Midwest region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin holds some of the richest, most productive agricultural lands in the country. These six states are part of the 12 Midwest states in the U.S. that each generate over $10 billion in agricultural cash receipts. From Wisconsin’s dairy industry to Illinois’ and Iowa’s corn and soybean fields—all of the Midwest states hold invaluable assets to America’s agriculture. Yet these six states in particular are among the most threatened for conversion of agriculture land to non–agricultural uses.
Michigan’s farms are under threat, with its best land succumbing to development.
From 2001-2016, 240,100 acres of agriculture land were developed or compromised—that’s over 16,000 acres annually. Using AFT’s PVR index, the measurement of productivity, versatility and resiliency of land, 66% of Michigan’s agriculture land is considered “Nationally Significant,” or land best suited for growing food and crops. This represents 7,786,000 acres of the state’s agricultural land–more “Nationally Significant” farmland than identified in the entire state of California.
“I’m thrilled to see so much of Michigan’s rich and diverse agricultural land identified as nationally significant in this report,” said Brian Bourdages, AFT’s Midwest farmland protection and National Agricultural Land Network consultant. “Unfortunately, the report also shows that this same ‘nationally significant’ land constitutes more than half of the land that was lost or compromised by development during the study period.”
Michigan is known for its diverse landscape and its wide variety of specialty crop production, made possible by the microclimate unique to its Lake Michigan nearshore regions. In fact, variety of crops produced in Michigan is second only to California nationwide. The state is the nation’s second–largest grower of Christmas trees and is one of the leading producers of apples, blueberries and cherries.
The hot spot for development was the dramatic expansion around Grand Rapids and Detroit. However, the threat is more than just urban sprawl. Michigan’s agricultural land is disproportionately threatened by a new more insidious kind of development discovered by AFT through this research, termed low-density residential, or LDR, development.
LDR is insidious because it is not always immediately visible to communities and policymakers and therefore has yet to provoke a policy response. In Michigan, these LDR lands were 11 times more likely to be converted to urban and highly developed land use than other agricultural land.
LDR land use compromises opportunities for farming and ranching, making it difficult for farmers to get into their fields or travel between fields. New residents not used to living next to agricultural operations often complain about farm equipment on roads or odors related to farming. Retailers such as grain and equipment dealers, on which farmers rely, are often pushed out. Farmers can be tempted to sell out for financial reasons, or because farming just becomes too hard in the circumstances. And lastly–but importantly–as older farmers near retirement they sell their properties, too often to non-farmers. This means that new and beginning farmers have a hard time finding land, threatening the very future of agriculture. More often than not, the land prices in these areas have been driven up by the encroaching development, making it impossible for new farmers to afford to buy a farm.
This study clearly shows these development patterns pose a significant threat to the future of Michigan’s best farmland.
Michigan scored in the middle of all states for the conversion of agricultural land to urban and highly developed and low–density residential uses. Michigan scored in the middle of all states for policies and programs that protect agricultural land from development, promote farm viability and facilitate the transfer of agricultural land. Long-standing programs, like PA 116, have helped address inequities in taxation related to farmland. The state’s Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements Program, or PACE, as administered by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Agricultural Preservation Fund Board, have shown considerable success in stemming the loss of farmland. Applications by farm families to permanently protect their farmland with an agricultural conservation easement have long exceeded the state’s available funding, and the Agricultural Preservation Fund Board has only made grants once since 2007.
AFT has maintained a presence in the Midwest since just after its founding in 1980, where it focuses on promoting sound farming practices, combating climate change and protecting farmland. Midwestern farmers are facing new economic challenges, and efforts must be made to ensure farmers have access and technical assistance to implement sustainable agricultural practices.
To sign up for a Farms Under Threat webinar about Michigan, click here.
For a brief summary of national results and connections with climate change, food security and the economy: National Media Release
American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through our No Farms, No Food message. Since our founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.5 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally-sound farming practices on millions of additional acres and supported thousands of farm families.