‘Cultivating Connections’ to bring new and experienced farmers together for day of learning and networking
WEST OLIVE The DeHaan family knows to make hay while the sun’s shining. With help from a Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) grant, their 37-acre Blendon Township farm has joined the list of preserved Ottawa County farms.
For Carson DeHaan, part owner and patriarch of the property, it was important to preserve. “The farm has been in the family since 1883,” he said. “I had to do something to preserve it.”
The DeHaans were able to protect their row crop and beef cattle farm from development through the county’s Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program. This program uses a combination of state and/or federal grant funding, private donations, and landowner contributions to purchase the development rights to farmland, creating a permanent agricultural conservation easement. The DeHaan property is the fifth Ottawa County operation to utilize the PDR program, bringing the total number of acres protected to 443. In the DeHaans’ case, a $157,500 MDARD grant made preservation possible.
“My grandson works with me on the farm,” said DeHaan. “I want to pass down these acres to him and my son when I retire.”
When looking to the future and retirement, many farmers face hurdles. For the DeHaans, it was helpful they had heirs in mind when they applied for the PDR program.
“Carson was concerned about the future. Having family members interested in taking the reins helps a lot,” said Ottawa County Economic Development Coordinator Becky Huttenga. “Some farmers aren’t that lucky.”
Almost a third of farmers in Ottawa County are over age 65, and less than 10% are under 35. It can be difficult for a child to take over for aging parents. Factor in the cost of purchasing property and outfitting and operating a farm, and it becomes exponentially harder for someone without a farming background to break into the business. Combine these factors with the allure of making quick retirement cash by selling to a developer, and it’s no surprise Ottawa County lost 17% of its farms from 2012-2017.
Ottawa County is challenging this trend with the MiFarmLink Project – a public-private partnership that aims to shepherd prime farmland from its current stewards into the hands of the next generation, and help these new farmers fill this vital role and be successful. MiFarmLink is jumpstarting this initiative with Cultivating Connections, an educational and networking event, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at the Holland Fish and Game Club.
“We’ve already gathered a slew of resources on our new website, MiFarmLink.org,” said Huttenga. “But it’s important that we get would-be, current, and experienced farmers under the same roof to learn, network, and build mentoring relationships.”
Besides introducing people to the MiFarmLink Project, this day of learning will offer workshops on how to use succession planning and mentorship.
The event kicks off with a succession planning workshop led by award-winning speaker, author, and agriculture champion Jolene Brown. An active farmer in eastern Iowa, Brown has written two books, is a regular contributor to Successful Farming Magazine, and is an inductee in the Council of Peers Award for Excellence (CPAE) Speaker Hall of Fame. Her morning session is more than a speech — it will be filled with relevant content and a 21-page workbook full of take-home solutions for farmers at all stages of their careers.
“Wow – wouldn’t this be something if it (succession planning) truly could be a positive experience?” said Brown in a prepared video message. “That we could make sure that senior generation is secure? That we could make sure we have the right people in the right place to continue the legacy of the land that means so much to us? Those are the issues that I want to address while I’m with you.”
Following Jolene Brown’s workshop and a networking lunch, separate educational breakout sessions for both experienced and new farmers will begin, and run through 4 p.m.
The day will wrap up with a networking happy hour sponsored by De Boer, Baumann & Company, PLC. Here attendees can talk with each other and with service providers who can help finance land, plan succession, and much more. Other event sponsors include Consumers Energy; Greenstone Farm Credit Services; the Ottawa County Farm Bureau; and AgriStrategies LLC.
The MiFarmLink Project is a collaborative effort spearheaded by a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant administered through Ottawa County. This public-private partnership aims to help shepherd prime farmland from its current stewards into the hands of the next generation, and help these new farmers fill this vital role and be successful. To learn more, visit MiFarmLink.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Farmland Preservation Program
With area farmers producing more than $506 million in products annually (2017 Ag Census), Ottawa County is an agricultural powerhouse. Ottawa is also the fastest growing county in the state and has a low unemployment rate. But this positive growth comes at a cost to agriculture: between 2012 and 2017, Ottawa County lost 8% of its farmed acreage and 17% of its farms. Ottawa County’s Farmland Preservation Program seeks to protect this vital industry and slow the loss of farms and farmland through programmatic efforts, including the Purchase of Development Rights Program.
Funded through a combination of private donations and state and federal grants, the PDR program preserves farmland through the purchase and donation of development rights for actively farmed property. This voluntary program allows participating landowners to receive compensation for the development potential of their land, yet still retain ownership and other rights associated with it through a permanent easement.
To learn more, visit MiOttawa.org/Farmland.