The West Michigan Fruit Belt Farmland Investment Program

Private Investment in Farmland Preservation Meets Multiple Goals

Many of you are undoubtedly familiar with the farmland preservation work that has been a hallmark of our region’s commitment to agriculture. With the leadership of the Leelanau and Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancies, together with the commitment of local communities such as Peninsula Township (Old Mission Peninsula) and Acme Township, both of whose voters have passed a millage to create additional revenue to protect farmland, our area is nationally recognized for taking a leadership role in protecting our unique farmland resources.

Why Protect Farmland - and Why Here?

Many are not familiar with the need to permanently protect farmland, or question why it’s important to pay for permanent conservation easements on farmland that restrict residential development. Shouldn’t we just leave what happens to our farmland up to market forces many would say? In a region like ours, this kind of thinking is shortsighted at best, and perhaps fatal in regards to the long-term agricultural environment made possible by our region’s family farms. After all, for the vast amount of work our own businesses engage in, farmland is the “factory floor” that makes it possible. And that farmland is globally unique. Few areas in the world have the microclimate our region enjoys, made possible by the synergy of well drained soils, our unique topography and most importantly, the proximity to Lake Michigan and our other large inland lakes. It’s the marriage of these elements that makes the Traverse Region the “cherry capital of the world,” producing as much as 70% of the nation’s tart cherries each year. Not to mention the fresh sweet cherries, peaches, plums, wine grapes and other crops that uniquely benefit from this micro-climate. Purchasing agricultural conservation easements which pay farmers for some or all of the value of development inherent in their land, provides another market choice for them, to sell the “homes” that would be instead of converting that farmland to residential development.

So much of our farmland is not only globally unique, it’s also recognized as critically threatened. More than 80% of all fruit and vegetables in the country our grown “in the path of development” and ours are not exception. The same elevations and views of water that our specialty crops enjoy, are the same areas that are prime for second home and retirement housing for those that want to share those same views and access to water. In fact, in a seminal study conducted by American Farmland Trust approximately 10 years ago, the West Michigan Fruit Belt was identified as one of the top ten most threatened agricultural resources in the nation. Further, a 2013 study by MSU Center for Regional Food Systems found that nearly ½ million acres of farmland in Michigan is slated to go out of production in the next 10-15 years, with no current plan for continued agricultural use. The percentage of this threat attributed to the fruit belt regions of Michigan is significantly larger than other areas of the state.  

Private Farmland Investment - An Additional Tool

Increasingly, more and more programs around the country are working to engage private investment to bear on the problem of keeping farmland in active agricultural use and getting it into the hands of the next generation of growers. Some of these private farmland investment programs have a “triple bottom line” strategy. These programs look to find not only an economic return for their investors, but also social and environmental and/or conservation-related returns too. Also known as “impact investing” and by other names, such programs have been used to support a variety of causes but have only recently been directed toward the challenge of farmland preservation and successful succession of farmland to the next generation of growers. Consistent with our belief that private sector programs can be a force for good, this kind of model makes perfect sense for our region.

The West Michigan Fruit Belt Farmland Investment Program

Engaging the private sector in our region’s farmland preservation efforts through a carefully structured program has been discussed in the region, primarily by the land conservancies and their major donors, for more than 15 years. Each time a potential program has been discussed, a significant challenge has also been at hand, for example, it was the market “crash” of 2008 that derailed the last effort to get such a program off the ground with the leadership of the Leelanau Conservancy.  

Chip has always been at the table for these discussions, and much like Cherry Capital Foods is structured as a for-profit entity, but with a socially directed mission, he’s been quick to see the potential efficacy of a carefully structured program for our region. With the creation of Tamarack Holdings, and the advent of my position, coupled with my 15+ years of work in protecting farmland, the timing was finally right to develop the framework for a program. Chip’s specific directions for this effort included the following:

  1. The program must work hand in hand with, and complement the work of, the area's land conservancies, and

  2. The program must result in a permanent conservation easement on farmland, insuring that the resources devoted to the program will help maintain a long-term business environment for agriculture in the region, and

  3. The program should aid in helping next generation growers gain ownership of farmland, and

  4. The program should be flexible enough to be employed all along the West Michigan Fruit Belt from our region to the Indiana border.

After studying many existing programs, and engaging a team of experts in agricultural economics, conservation easement law, and investment program structure, a program model is emerging that will meet the directives above, while also being attractive to conscientious investors who love our region and its natural and cultural resources. This program, tentatively called the West Michigan Fruit Belt Farmland Investment Program, is designed to be the first investment vehicle that’s a part of Tamarack’s portfolio, and the first whose primary social/environmental return is the permanent preservation of farmland. It’s funds will purchase farmland at risk of development, work with the conservancies to protect it with a conservation easement to insure it can remain as farmland, get the farm in good condition if its been neglected, and eventually re-sell it back to a grower - preferably a new grower. This new program will be one that we can all be proud to be associated with, and that will further elevate our position as a leader in creative efforts to address challenges facing our region and state’s food system. There is perhaps no bigger threat to our food system than the significant loss of farmland that is the “factory floor” of our work!

Look for more information about this program in subsequent editions of our newsletter.

- Brian Bourdages, Program Manager