New law may help stem loss of farmland

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan’s agriculture industry, the second largest in the state, generates more than $37 billion annually. About 52,000 farms stretch across 10.4 million acres of rolling farmland, providing the food and textiles people depend upon every day.
But that bountiful land is in serious danger of being developed into subdivisions, strip malls and other urban sprawl, agriculture officials say.
Recent census figures show Michigan’s population has increased 7 percent since 1990. That growth is resulting in even greater residential and commercial development. Experts in St. Joseph County, one of the largest agricultural areas in the state, say when there’s no land left to develop in the city, developers look to farmers for land.
Dave Sturgis, a retired hog and vegetable farmer of 40 years and Michigan Farm Bureau member, said “We’re losing 10 acres of farmland an hour in Michigan. It’s projected that in 40 years, we’ll lose 40 percent of our farmland.”
However, Michigan farmers now have more resources to fight urban sprawl. Gov. John Engler recently signed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Beverly Hammerstrom, R-Temperance, allowing farmers to permanently protect their land from nonagricultural development.
Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, said the state’s preservation programs are already among the most successful in the nation.
“This legislation builds upon that success and ensures that farmers and land owners committed to saving farmland and open space for the next generation will not be penalized for transferring lands from temporary to permanent preservation agreements,” Wyant said.
The bill allows farmers and land owners who participate in Michigan’s Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program (P.A. 116) to move to the state’s Purchase of Development Rights program without penalty.
P.A. 116 agreements protect enrolled land for a minimum of 10 years, while the PDR program will permanently save farmers’ land from nonagricultural development. “P.A. 116 has been a big help, but we need things that preserve more permanently,” Sturgis said. “These programs are all underfunded. There are several things that have been passed by the Legislature, but there’s a definite lack of funding.”
Since P.A. 116 was enacted in 1974, more than 4.3 million acres of farmland have been protected from development. Yet, in recent years, the number of farmers enrolled in the program has fallen.
In St. Joseph County, more farmers are enrolling in P.A. 116 agreements, but not programs that permanently protect the land, Sturgis said.
“We have seen close to a 70 percent increase in the number of contracts not being renewed since 1994,” said Sen. George McManus, R-Traverse City. McManus chairs the Senate Agricultural Preservation Task Force.
About 40 percent, or 1. 7 million acres, of land protected by the program are scheduled to leave development rights agreements between 1998 and 2003.
In 2001, Michigan gained 1,000 small farms, while the overall total of farms and farmland remained steady from the previous year.
Wyant said the number of small and large farms is growing, while farmers in the middle are losing out.
“Michigan, with the strong support of the governor and Legislature, has placed a high priority on ensuring the future viability of agriculture in the state, from initiatives that have helped increase on-farm profitability to reducing significant tax burdens.”
Eleanor Iott, chairperson for the St. Joseph County Planning Commission, said younger generations are
choosing not to keep the family farm, which is one reason, in addition to development, Michigan farms are disappearing. “Farmers’ children are realizing they can make as much or more money in another career. As it is, there isn’t much money involved with commodity agriculture. Farmers sell their land because it is so valuable.
“The chances of making money on a farm is much greater for small fruit and vegetable farms than for farmers who grow large crops like soybeans,” Iott said.
Iott owns Nottawa Fruit Farm, a 160-acre farm in Sturgis.
Wyant said a few key efforts, such as the Senate bill, help protect the future of Michigan farms and their land. This includes Proposal A, the 1994 state constitutional amendment, enacted to reduce overall property tax burdens and enhance the state’s Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program.
The Preservation Act enables a farm owner to enter into an agreement with the state, ensuring that the land remains in agriculture use for at least 10 years.
Farmers who maintain the land in an agriculture use may be entitled to certain income tax benefits, while their land is not subject to special assessments for sanitary sewer, water, lights or nonfarm drain projects.
The benefits under an agreement depend upon the property tax assessed against the property and the income of the land owner. Here’s an example used by MDA. If a farmer or landowner has an income of $20,00 and property taxes on the farm total $2,000, the owner would subtract $700 (3.5 percent of $20,000) from the $2,000 property tax for an income tax credit of $1,300. That credit is in addition to the Homestead Property Tax Credit, which the owner may already be qualified.
According to MDA, the state holds more than 50,000 farmland agreements, preserving 4.3 million acres, about 40 percent of Michigan total agricultural production land.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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