WILLIAMSBURG — For the last 30 summers, Dennis and Barb Dean traveled from their Alaska home to tend to their sweet and tart cherry orchards in Williamsburg.
Now at retirement age, they just signed an agreement to keep 88 acres as farmland for a decade. For that, they’ll earn $880 a year.
“We are right on Elk Lake, and there’s a lot of pressure to turn all these orchards into housing developments,” said Dennis Dean, 63, a calculus teacher. “So this is a great way to assure the farming community that the land is locked up for 10 years.”
The Deans are the first farm family to sign onto the new Farmability program launched by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, said Brian Bourdages, the agency’s farmland program manager.
The program pays farmers in four townships $10 an acre to keep farmland active for 10 years. It will pay half that for undeveloped woodlots, wetlands, or other high conservation acreage.
“It’s a way for them to dip their toes in the water in terms of working with us,” Bourdages said. “We had 10 folks at a meeting a month ago, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but these growers represent 2,000 acres in four townships, so it was exciting to see.”
The Deans are exactly the age the Conservancy targets. Baby boom farmers are nearing retirement, which will trigger a historic and massive inter-generational transfer of land, Bourdages said.
“Much of their wealth is mostly tied into their land, and it’s eventually going to have to trade hands,” he said. “We’re trying to provide supports and incentives, so that when it changes hands, it will stay in agricultural production.”
For the Deans, the decision was easy. They had already planned to pass the orchards onto their 30-year-old son, who grew up on the farm and still helps out. The farm has been in the family since pre-Civil War days, Dean said as he pointed to his great-great grandfather’s original farm house.
The Farmability program provides farmers with a modest financial incentive, as well as advice from partnership groups on business plans, crop research, tax planning, and how to pass on land to successors.
In 2004, voters defeated millage proposals in Whitewater, Torch Lake, Elk Rapids and Milton townships that would have raised tax money to preserve farmland. Afterward, Bourdages decided to ask fruit growers about their own ideas of preserving farmland. They said they liked the concept of the state’s Public Act 116 program, which allows growers to enroll in a non-permanent conservation easement.
“But they said it was too complicated,” he said. “It is structured around a state tax credit that’s tied to their income. The growers didn’t know from year-to-year if they were going to be eligible and didn’t want to monkey with it.”
So Bourdages proposed Farmability, modeled after a highly successful program launched by the Leelanau Conservancy in 2009. It has already preserved nearly 6,000 acres.