Many reasons for farming’s success; we exclude zoning
Is it the carrot, the stick, or forces far from such common metaphors that best explain the continued dominance of agriculture on Leelanau County’s rolling hillsides?
While it’s clear that farming remains a major part of the county’s economic and social forces — and may, indeed, be growing in importance — not one factor should be given all or perhaps even most of the credit. Surprisingly, zoning restrictions, the “stick” in the process, gets little credit, and may actually hurt the chances of a farmer continuing to live and work on his or her land by taking away land use options.
That’s surprising, given the great movement over the past 50 years toward governmental land use control as a way to keep our fluid society within the parameters prescribed by office holders and others involved in the planning process. Despite the best of efforts to keep land from fragmenting, it has been divided often and rarely recombined. The change has benefitted people who enjoy a back yard big enough to hold horses or a long driveway that leads to a quiet hillside.
The fragmentation has had little effect on the ability of county farmers to grow cherries or corn. Following are some of the processes in play that have kept Leelanau a leading agricultural producer in Michigan, and the nation:
Farming now takes on many faces. For instance, small organic farms or nurseries can subsist on just a few acres. At the same time, some family farms have been bought up by larger farms. We won’t apply the term “corporate farming” because you can stop by in the morning for a cup of coffee. The result is that the biggest of parcels, in general, have not been splintered, while the smaller parcels are also given a seat at the table of agriculture.
Count the county’s growing grape industry as helping to fill an important niche. Wine represents the ultimate value-added farm product, allowing an entrepenuer with abilities in hospitality, marketing and viticulture to succeed far beyond the limits of selling crops to co-ops.
Most farms have been profitable in recent years. No amount of zoning can force someone to remain in a business with declining revenues. With the exception of the upcoming season — fruit crops are a mess, devastated by frost and a limb-busting snowstorm — cherry prices have been good and corn prices downright handsome. The opportunity for a strong profit makes farming a career choice rather than a requirement to continue the family legacy.
Though discredited when first rolled out, the Leelanau Conservancy’s program of buying the development rights from farmers has succeeded in keeping income taxes down and providing a one-time funding shot when needed. The Conservancy seems to have won the confidence of many county farmers, not only through its programs but also with handshakes and listening skills. Credit director of farm services director Tom Nelson for earning the trust of many.
Farmers themselves. Cherry growers tax themselves by the pound of their crops to run an innovative marketing program stressing the health value of cherries. It’s working. They’ve also provided the backbone for county farmers markets, started organic farms and been willing to experiment with new varieties and techniques. Farmers have proven themselves innovative to the point of thriving in what has become a worldwide economy.
Government-provided research, which in Leelanau County is centered at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station and aided by MSU Extension.
We’re not sure zoning should even be on this list. While restricting the number of divisions on parcels of land may leave open space, it can’t force someone to till it. Zoning without the free market incentive to grow crops would leave Leelanau County a place for gentleman’s farms.
We’re grateful that Leelanau has avoided such a fate.