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Published: Friday, 10/28/2005

The old family farm

MICHIGAN is taking an admirable and much-needed step toward preserving its farmland. As rural land all over the country is gobbled up by developers anxious to build yet another strip mall or upscale condominiums, a new law allows Michigan communities to buy the rights to farms to keep them from becoming one more sprawling expanse of concrete.

The Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund is designed to address the problem. Farmers can apply to their local or county governments and ask for a promise that the land will always remain agricultural. They give up their land development rights, but in return they get a pledge that the land will never be developed, and the plan can bring them income to invest in their farms if they like, or to put toward their retirement.

As farmland disappears, communities are trying to figure out how to slow the unfortunate trend.

Creeping urbanization upsets the environment, displaces wildlife, and diminishes rainwater run-off. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that between 1997 and 2002, metropolitan Detroit lost nearly 36,000 acres of farmland. That represents nearly half of all the farmland in Wayne County, almost a fifth in Oakland County, and 16 percent in Macomb County.

As noble as the effort is, there's a problem. The preservation fund stands at just $1.3 million. That's less than what developers are willing to pay sometimes for one farm. So far, only a few Michigan farmers have applied to the fund.

Considering how much developers can themselves offer farmers, it may realistically be tough for them to reject hefty offers. Perhaps the best candidates for the program are environmentally minded farmers or those whose farms have been in their families for many years.

Michigan will certainly have to grow its fund to keep more farmland from vanishing. But the effort should be worth it.

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