Program moves across state to continue preserving Michigan farms and farming communities.
submitted by Ottawa County, Michigan
When you think of Michigan’s largest economic drivers, what comes to mind? Automotive has topped the list for decades, but agriculture is an important second. Michigan’s diverse food and ag system accounts for approximately $105 billion in economic activity annually. Though strong, the ag industry is contracting. Older farmers are leaving the industry faster than young farmers are coming in – at a rate of 4 to 1 – and while some older farmers have heirs, many do not. The good news is many first-generation farmers want to step into those shoes, but most are not from farming backgrounds and struggle to find land.
So how do we bring together these landless young farmers with those who are about to park their equipment for the last time? Michigan agricultural leaders and advocates knew they needed to focus on protecting farming’s very finite and critical asset – land.
Enter MiFarmLink.org, a platform where Michigan growers leaving the industry can post their land where new farmers in need of acreage can find it.
“Other states have successful platforms to connect and support farmers of all ages,” said Becky Huttenga, economic development coordinator for Ottawa County, which is third-largest agricultural economy in Michigan. “There are plenty of resources out there for Michiganders interested in farming, but we as a state lacked a sort of one-stop shop. With MIFarmLink, we created just that.“
As an agricultural and food processing leader with the fastest growing population in the state, it made sense for Ottawa County to be the first hub for MiFarmLink. Since its initial launch in 2021 with funds from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, MiFarmLink has connected farmers from Leelanau to Washtenaw and features information about land for sale, succession planning, mentorship and events. Now, the MiFarmLink baton is being passed to the Washtenaw County Conservation District (WCCD).
“As home to the largest number of beginning farmers in the State, and with large diversified and thriving direct markets, Washtenaw County is an ideal location to start an agricultural business,” said WCCD Executive Director Megan DeLeeuw. “Which is why it is also the perfect place to continue to build MiFarmLink.”
The website garnered the attention of Ann Arbor Natural Area Preservation’s Land Acquisition and Sustainability Deputy Manager Remy Long. He was amazed by the timing.
“Washtenaw region land protection specialists have long recognized the need for a platform like MIFarmLink and were finally about to start fundraising to create one when I heard about the work Ottawa County was doing,” said Long.
He connected Ottawa County with land preservationist Trilby MacDonald, who had been leading the effort to create a land-link program in Washtenaw County. “As a former farmer who struggled to buy land, watching the conversion of farmland to developments is especially painful,” said MacDonald. “Conservation leaders had talked about the need to develop a tool to connect farmers for years, but nothing happened. So I volunteered to get local conservation leaders together to gather data and raise money.”
MacDonald, Huttenga and DeLeeuw worked together to obtain two years of financial support from The Americana Foundation, Towsley Foundation, and the Carls Foundation, organizations that Huttenga describes as “leaders in community programming that appreciate the need to support our first generation and underserved farmers as they pursue their dreams in agriculture.” Their support has allowed for MiFarmLink’s next phase of growth in southeast Michigan.
A Washtenaw County local, Sam Stokes, has been hired by the WCCD to serve as the full time MiFarmLink coordinator. “As a farmer in the southeast Michigan region, this project really grabbed my attention,” said Stokes. “The cost of land and the rate at which it’s being sold for development is just frightening, and MiFarmLink will be a great tool to get land into the hands of new farmers and protect it from conversion into housing, commercial, industrial or other non-farm uses.“
MiFarmLink will grow under the guidance of an advisory committee made up of leaders from the agricultural community who are dedicating their time and expertise to make MiFarmLink a platform and program that represents and serves their communities. These advisory committee members each wear numerous “hats” within the food system that include – but are not limited to – land preservationists, beginning and first-generation farmers, legacy farmers, agricultural landowners, food systems experts, educators, advocates and community organizers.