TRAVERSE CITY — Local generational fruit growers preserved a large swath of their Leelanau County farmland, forever protecting it from development.

The Gallagher name has long been associated with farming in northwest Lower Michigan’s fruit belt. And now it always will be.

Landowner John Gallagher Jr. — a fifth-generation descendant of Irish immigrants — said the family has a long history connected to the Leelanau County property blanketed with orchards. And it’s been a family tradition to keep the land agricultural, he said.

“Dad wanted to keep the land in farming and I told him that is what I wanted to do,” he said in a news release from the Leelanau Conservancy.

The Gallagher family protected 172 acres of their more than 400-acre holdings through a conservation easement with the nonprofit organization based in Leland. The land is on a ridgeline that overlooks Grand Traverse Bay from the west side of East Cherry Bend Road.

Thomas Nelson, the conservancy’s executive director, said this type of preservation project can only happen because farmers have long-served as stewards of the land.

“We wouldn’t have these farmlands to protect without multi-generational farm families like the Gallaghers,” Nelson said.

Matt Heiman, the conservancy’s director of land protection, said the land remains privately owned and on the tax roll, which means it is not open to public access. However, development rights for those acres are restricted, meaning they must forever stay designated farmland, he said.

“Many of our forested ridgelines have been converted into residential use as the real estate market has improved,” Heiman said.

He said this trend comes against the backdrop of local fruit growers facing unprecedented pressures: risk of crop failure because of extreme weather events or invasive pest insects, along with Turkish cherry imports driving down market prices.

“It’s tempting to jump out of the game and sell the land,” Heiman said.

The Gallagher’s land protection happened through the conservancy’s participation in a regional fruitbelt conservation program. The family was paid to remove the development rights on the designated acres, funded through a United States Department of Agriculture grant and donations made to the conservancy’s farmland protection fund.

The Gallaghers also donated a portion of the development rights’ value, officials said.

The now-protected farm site is nearby the conservancy’s existing DeYoung Natural Area, and is home to the headwaters of an unnamed spring-fed creek the flows through that public nature preserve. The stream then flows into Cedar Lake, and then into the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay.

Nelson said that water quality protection element to the farmland preservation project meets yet another overarching goal of the conservancy.

“It’s certainly a significant component to the overall landscape in that area,” Nelson said.

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