Traverse City Record-Eagle

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May 24, 2013

Conservancy offers farmers a shorter-term option for land

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.

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