BUCKLEY — Joe and Shirley Schichtel set up their tree farm and vineyard in southern Grand Traverse County with the goal to minimize their impact on the environment.

The Schichtel Nursery & Vineyard near Buckley was among the first farms in the state to enroll in the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, first launched in 1997 and then codified into law in 2011 as voluntary among the state's agricultural producers. Michigan recently surpassed its 5,000th verification through the program, for which Joe Schichtel said he advocates to every farmer he meets.

"I'm an environmentalist as heart. The air, the water and the earth — the soil — is integral to that, if we really care," Joe Schichtel said.

The Schichtels were among those from 13 farms recognized during a banquet in Lansing two months ago for being enrolled in the program from the start, said Jessy Sielski, deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development.

The distinction is worth the hard work on the land and the considerable amount of bureaucratic paperwork involved, agreed the Schichtels, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next month.

Joe Schichtel said he doesn't want that to discourage other farmers from considering the program because officials help answer questions, and the benefits to the environment are worth the sacrifice.

"We're sitting on one-fifth of the world's freshwater here," he said, which must be protected for future generations.

Shirley Schichtel said she's pleased to see a growing number of farms across the region enroll in the environmental farming assurance program.

"More and more we are seeing these signs being put up. It makes me so proud," she said. "And we're not giving up. We are really proud.

"It's like strings that pull us all together and make us stronger," she said.

The couple grows various types of trees and also grape vines to supply vineyards in the area. They started with 80 undeveloped acres more than two decades ago.

"I thought we were blessed to find this and carefully develop this place," Joe Schichtel said.

Officials with the state Department of Agriculture & Rural Development work with individual farmers to identify and remedy risks to the environment on their properties which could result in groundwater or surface water contamination. They make a plan to address any concerns and regularly verify the farms keep up with standards.

Program details show the review process includes assessment of: chemical, fuel and pesticide storage; water well tests; manure storage; risks associated with pesticide and fertilizer use; erosion control; record keeping; feed storage; livestock lot management; and sustainable practices related to nearby woodlands, wetlands and other habitats.

Mike Berkowitz, legislative and political director for the Michigan chapter of Sierra Club, said the nonprofit environmental organization opposed legislation in 2011 that made best practices in the MAEAP voluntary rather than mandatory regulations. He said voluntary environmental protections rarely work, even when coupled with financial incentives.

"True protections and safeguards require enforcement and are the real key to mitigating agricultural pollution — and other types of pollution, too," Berkowitz said.

More information about Michigan's voluntary environmental agriculture program can be found at www.maeap.org online.