Happily preserving their farmland

A survey of ten Kent County, Michigan farmland preservation program participants shows all are satisfied with the program.

In 2015 and early 2016, Michigan State University Extension distributed surveys to 17 property owners that preserved all or a portion of their farms through the Kent County Purchase of Development Rights Program. Ten surveys were completed and returned to MSU Extension. The goals of the survey were: 1) to determine if the preserved property was still being farmed; 2) to determine if property owners and their families were still glad they preserved their farms; and 3) to determine the greatest barriers to participation.

Each of the property owners had preserved their land over six years ago, which MSU Extension determined as a sufficient amount of time for participants to reflect on their experience and how it has impacted their farm businesses and families. Five of the ten survey respondents said they used the funds from the sale of their development rights to retire or semi-retire. Three respondents said they used the funds to transfer the land to a younger farmer. Making farmland more affordable to younger generations of farmers is one of the objectives of farmland preservation programs, according to the American Farmland Trust.

All of the preserved lands were still being actively farmed. Five respondents (50 percent) said their farm was stronger and more profitable now than at the time it was preserved, while the remaining five said their farms were about the same in terms of production and profitability. This was of particular interest because of the concerns that had been expressed by those opposing the PDR program. Opponents believed that once farmland was preserved it would become fallow because there is no legal requirement that preserved land must be farmed. The PDR easement only prohibits certain types of residential, commercial and industrial development as well as the size of impervious surfaces on preserved lands.

When asked about the greatest barriers for participation, there was not a single issue that rose to the top. The two barriers survey respondents felt were important were the lack of public knowledge about the program and the lack of funding for the program. Both of these issues received three votes. Funding of the Kent County PDR program remains a controversial issue on the Kent County Board of Commissioners as there are members who feel county funding should not be used to preserve farmland.

One hundred percent of survey respondents said their family members were still happy that their farmland was preserved. Zero respondents said they regretted their decision. Participants were asked about what advice they have for others concerning the program. One respondent said, “It’s a great way to take some equity from the farm to improve your operation without going to the bank and put a mortgage on the farm.” Another respondent wrote, “If you want your farm never to be developed, get it in the farm preservation program.”

The Kent County Purchase of Development Rights program was created in 2002 through an ordinance adopted by the Board of Commissioners. The program is still actively preserving prime and unique farmland with funding support from private foundations and donors, landowner contributions, and the USDA NRCS Farm and Ranchland Protection Program. To date, the program has preserved 31 properties totaling 3,396 acres.

For more information about farmland preservation in Kent County, contact Denny Heffron, Chairperson of the Kent County Agricultural Preservation Board at denny@heffronfarms.com.

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