Orchard land usually passed within families, sold to neighbors
A check of real estate listings for Leelanau County turns up few for sale. One reason, according to a leading county cherry farmer and a veteran real estate agent, is that most orchards are passed on from one generation to the next or are sold to a neighboring farmer without ever hitting the market.
One reason is that orchardists want their labor to continue long after their final cherry harvest, they both say.
“They should make a rule that they can’t build another subdivision until they fill one up,” suggested Nita Send, who with her husband, Jeff, farms nearly 1,000 acres of orchards in Leelanau County.
The Sends and their partners Scott and Penny Emeott are always seeking to expand their cherry operation, but not at any cost.
“I’m going to look to my neighbor and drop a line,” said Jeff Send, in explaining how he goes about expanding his company’s orchard holdings. “But No. 1, I’m going to make sure your kids don’t want it. I don’t want to get in the way of handing down a family farm.”
Send’s respect for family farms may be genetic. His grandparents Joseph and Minnie Send bought and started farming 80 acres on Lee Point peninsula about the time World War I ended, eventually selling the farm to their son and daughter-in-law Joseph Jr. and Rose Send. The Send farm, now all of 160 acres, is today owned solely by Jeff and Nita.
Jeff Send said most cherry orchard property, if you can find it, sells for between $6,000 and $8,000 per acre. He’s seen orchards sell for a wider range of prices, from between $3,500 and $8,500 per acre.
The prices vary greatly depending on lake views and geographic location in the county. Again, Send draws from his own family’s history, which extends to a time when frontage on Grand Traverse Bay was nothing special, to explain how the factors going into land prices have changed.
There wasn’t even a road along the bay connecting Travese City and Suttons Bay when “grandpa Joe” started farming on the peninsula. That’s one reason he sold off most of his farm’s frontage on Grand Traverse Bay for a pittance of its value today. In fact, family lore has it that he could have bought all of heavily wooded Lee Point Peninsula for $500.
“He asked, ‘What are you going to do with that? You can’t farm it,’” Jeff Send said. “Who would have known?”
Without competition from recreational or housing uses, agricultural land sold for the worth of the crops it could provide. Not so today, as Leelanau’s best fruit property often comes with beautiful views of the peninsula and the water surrounding it.
Despite higher prices, Send is constantly looking to add to his company’s holdings because in the business of farming bigger is better. Larger operations allow cherry growers to spread out the cost of expensive equipment such as shakers over more acres, and better justify farm production areas such as receiving stations.
But Send also knows the limitations of an orchard to produce revenue. Spending too much up front for an orchard moves the first year of profit further down the road.
“You have to buy it, and buy it right,” Send said. “(Efficiency is) why we started expanding, and yes, I do want to pass on our farm. To do that, you need a profit margin — and I’m hoping one day that’s what happens.”
Now there’s competition for orchard land from Leelanau County’s newest line of farmers — viticulturists. Send makes no bones about his thoughts on how a rush for vineyard land has increased the price for prime orchard property.
He’s listened to stories of perspective winery owners paying up to $20,000 per acre for prime grape land on Old Mission Peninsula, with purchasers thankful their business dreams didn’t take them to Napa Valley where vineyard land goes for $50,000 or more per acre.
“I’ve heard rumors of up to $15,000 paid in Leelanau County. As far as I’m concerned, knock yourself out at that price,” Send said.
Real estate agent Tim Schaub, a member of the Schaub Team of agents with Coldwell Banker-Schmidt Realtors and a lifelong Lake Leelanau resident, can verify that orchard land fetches a premium if it’s been deemed good for grapes. Although now off the market, last fall he listed a 50-acre parcel in the Gills Pier area for $750,000. Soil tests and other barometers were used to determine grapes would fare well on the site.
“We had it priced a little bit higher because it was very good for grapes,” Schaub said. “I’ve had some sales that have gone at that range ... (they) can go for $15,000 per acre. It seems like it’s slowed a bit for those requests.”
Schaub estimates that average prices fetched for cherry orchards vary between $4,500 and $7,000 per acre, depending upon location and views. “Solon Township is going to be a lot less than Leland Township,” he explained. Prices have decreased about 20 percent over the past 3-4 years, he added, falling along with home prices.
An online search of 60-acre and larger properties in Leelanau County turned up 16. Orchard land was hard to find with only two substantial orchards listed.
One was for a 55-acre apple orchard that was part of a 110-acre for sale in Empire Township. The listing price is $795,000, or about $7,225 per acre.
Also listed is an 160-acre parcel in Kasson Township with 6,000 cherry trees, representing about half of the acreage. It’s asking price is $800,000, or $5,000 per acre.
Cherry trees have been pulled from orchards on a 60-acre former cherry farm in Bingham Township with a list price of $425,000, or about $7,085 per acre.
The typical family cherry farm, however, never reaches the Traverse Area Association of Realtors website, he conceded. That’s because sales are usually within families or among neighbors, as Send had suggested.
“They have their own network, and a lot of them know each other,” Schaub said.
That system has worked well for Send, who plans to continue to increase his company’s orchard holdings when possible while encouraging family farms to be passed on to younger generations when possible. In a season in which the cherry harvest has mostly failed, Send said more orchard land may be available for purchase.
If the price and location are right — and if no family member is ahead in line — he’ll move.
“We might lose farms over this. We might lose family farms. I hate to see that. This is not a pretty scenario. We hope everyone can hang on, and we need to have a good year to become healthy again,” he said.