Frey Supports Farmland Salvation

June 20, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Most already know that strawberry fields are forever. Well, certain groves of apples and cherries will also become eternal, if a local philanthropic group has anything to say about it.

The Frey Foundation has decided to throw its support behind a new preservation effort aimed at saving parts of the West Michigan fruit business.

The endeavor will attempt to establish a Purchase of Development Rights program for selected southwest Michigan farms from Berrien County north to Emmet County, an area noted for its fruit production.

The foundation recently approved a three-year, $73,000 challenge grant for the Michigan Farmland and Community Alliance (MFCA), a nonprofit organization in Lansing whose mission is to preserve farmland throughout the state. The Michigan Farm Bureau supports the four-year-old MFCA, which will direct the new effort.

"The issue of preserving prime and unique farmland has been an interest of the Frey Foundation for a long period of time and we wish the MFCA the best of luck. The concept of creating an organization focused in the private sector was very appealing," said Milt Rohwer, president of the Frey Foundation.

Rohwer added that having MFCA lead the effort also appealed to the local foundation, one of the state's largest with a lengthy history of protecting natural resources.

MFCA Executive Director Jim Fuerstenau said the fiscal backing provided by the Frey Foundation would help his organization create a land conservancy.

"The ultimate goal of the program is to preserve 10 farms in Michigan's fruit belt by the end of the grant period," said Fuerstenau, who added that the program intends to target the farms that are most at risk for development.

"Our intention is to eventually move this farmland conservancy program statewide. But we wanted to start in a manageable region," he added. "The land is nationally significant and significant worldwide."

Fuerstenau said the region is undergoing a considerable amount of development pressure. One factor that interests home and commercial builders in that southwest neck of the woods is, of course, Lake Michigan. The hills throughout the shoreline region are an inviting factor, too, as these make ideal settings for country homes.

Fuerstenau told the Business Journal that MFCA has a "very good" relationship with homebuilders at the state level and is getting to know builders in the area. Recently, he said, MFCA met with the leadership of four southwest Michigan real estate boards to tell them they were coming into the area with PDR programs and invited them to participate.

"That was received very well," said Fuerstenau.

According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the state's fruit industry was worth $244 million in 2000, up 19.7 percent from 1995. Apples, blueberries and tart cherries are the biggest cash crops.

Although apples remain the state's top selling fruit, tart cherries grew the fastest over that period — jumping by 197 percent to nearly $40 million three years ago. Receipts for blueberries rose by 70 percent. Sales of sweet cherries, grapes, strawberries, peaches and apples declined from 1995 to 2000.

But before MFCA can begin to preserve farmland, it needs to raise $325,000 to start promoting and implementing the program. In addition to the Frey Foundation grant, the Land Trust Alliance, a national group, has given $15,000 to it. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy has volunteered to train MFCA staffers. Fuerstenau said he hopes to raise the funds by fall.

MFCA will use much of the money to staff the preservation effort and then use conservation easements and donated land to initiate a conservancy, which will operate separately from state and local governments.

The alliance hopes to encourage farmers in the region to donate land to the conservancy, which will protect properties from ever being developed, as the development rights will always be held in a trust through a conservation easement.

"Now easement signifies to a lot of people that you're allowing public access, and that is not the case. It's simply the legal instrument that does not allow development on that land in perpetuity," said Fuerstenau.

"It is one of the few, what they call 'negative restrictive covenants' — like a deed restriction. But it has a lot more staying power."           

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