2016-10-20 / Outdoors

Leelanau Conservancy helps lock 210-acre cherry farm in agriculture

By Jay Bushen
Of The Enterprise staff


THE FAMILY of Tom and Louise Lawton have worked with the Leelanau Conservancy to ensure their family farm in Suttons Bay will forever remain in agriculture. Photo: Lawton family THE FAMILY of Tom and Louise Lawton have worked with the Leelanau Conservancy to ensure their family farm in Suttons Bay will forever remain in agriculture. Photo: Lawton family Tom Lawton traded a life in the auto industry for a life of agriculture when he retired at 55 and moved to Leelanau County from Birmingham with his wife, Louise, in the 1970s.

Tom, formerly the assistant treasurer at Chrysler Corporation, and Louise took on the life of cherry growers for three decades on a 210-acre farm in Suttons Bay.

The Lawtons had a dream of keeping their farm in agriculture before they passed away, and their four adult children turned that dream into a reality two weeks ago with help from the Leelanau Conservancy. The family worked with the conservancy to ensure the property will stay in agriculture through a federal purchase of development rights program. In other words, the farm will remain in private ownership, but future development of the land is restricted to agriculture.


PICTURED ARE a pair of barns at the Lawton Farm. Photo: Leelanau Conservancy PICTURED ARE a pair of barns at the Lawton Farm. Photo: Leelanau Conservancy “My parents would be so pleased,” daughter Kathy Heye told the Conservancy. “My dad loved that land and I hope he knows somehow that it’s always going to stay a farm.”

Sam Plotkin, manager of farm programs, said the project has been in the making for several years. The Lawtons had developed a relationship and worked with the former manager of farm programs and current executive director, Tom Nelson, and even donated a small portion of the property to the cause in 2014.

Plotkin said the 210-acre project is the Conservancy’s largest in several years.

“Agriculture is an economic driver of Leelanau County,” Plotkin said. “It’s part of our region’s heritage and it’s important that we protect that.”


TREES AT the Lawton Farm are pictured. 
Photo: LeelanauConservancy TREES AT the Lawton Farm are pictured. Photo: LeelanauConservancy The Leland-based nonprofit has been busy doing just that for the last 12 months. In fact, four family farms totaling 670 acres have been preserved in that span: the Lawton Farm, the Garthe Farm, the Korson Farm and the McManus Farm.

For the most recent project, Plotkin said the Conservancy brought funds to the table through private fundraising efforts and by receiving a grant through the National Resources Conservation Service’s Agriculture Conservation Easement Program.

The Lawton Farm’s proximity to Suttons Bay was a factor.

“The closer you get from farm to city, the greater threat some of these farm properties are to conversion to nonagricultural use or development that would not allow agriculture to continue,” Plotkin said.

He said the decision to work with the Lawtons was a no-brainer.

“There are four kids spread out across the U.S. and Canada,” he said, “but they felt compelled to conserve this land in Leelanau County. They were driven by their parents’ desire to see this stay open in agriculture. … People maintain a connection to this place.”

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