Farms are growing in Washtenaw County even as they decline nationwide. Here's why.

A decline in food-producing farms has continued in Michigan for many years since the '50s, but the trend reversed in Washtenaw County starting around 2012.
Food-producing farms are dwindling across Michigan and the United States in general, but Washtenaw County is defying that trend.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducts an intensive agricultural census every five years, which has found a slow but steady nationwide decline in the number of farms producing food crops. That decline has continued in Michigan for many years since the '50s but reversed in a few counties, including Washtenaw, starting around 2012.

Bill Brinkerhoff is the co-founder of Argus Farm Stop, a year-round farm stand business with three locations in Ann Arbor. He's been keeping an eye on the data.
Argus Farm Stop owners Kathy Sample and Bill Brinkerhoff.
"That number was in a steady decline, and by 2012, the year before the reversal in the trend started, the county had lost over 60% of farms," Brinkerhoff says. "It was the same across Michigan and the country." 

He notes that some counties have seen a loss of 7-10% from census to census in the past few decades, but that's not true in Washtenaw County.

"What we've seen in our county is a slight uptick in overall farms that bucks the trend," Brinkerhoff says.

What's happening?

Brinkerhoff says the most recent USDA data found that, between 2017 and 2022, Washtenaw County added 59 new farms growing and selling produce. The county added the most farms of any Michigan county. Brinkerhoff notes that this is specifically an uptick in farms growing produce for humans to eat, an important distinction from large "row crops" grown for livestock or biofuel.

He says he also sees positive trends in Washtenaw County's overall food system, including local egg and meat production. 
Fair Food Network CEO Kate Krauss.
"We saw really big growth in poultry, eggs and chicken, even farms that raise pigs,"  Brinkerhoff says.

Kate Krauss, CEO of Michigan-based Fair Food Network, says the reversal in the trend is "exciting news."

"We've been adding farms, and these are direct-to-consumer farms selling at farmers markets and farm stands, rather than just to distribution companies, though many do that too," Krauss says. "Washtenaw has added small family farms, and those are the kind of farms that create the long-term sustainable food economy we want to see, that make a healthy and wealthy community and make Michigan a great place to live."

Why Washtenaw?

Kristen Muehlhauser of Whitmore Lake-based Raindance Organic Farm says she thinks the growth in new farms is partly due to the fact that "we live in a place where the wealth of our county can support a food system that can have higher prices and support families who really value doing this work."

She says most people won't pay $6 for a pound of tomatoes in rural northern Michigan, but they will in Ann Arbor, because "that's the going rate at Argus."
Kristen Muehlhauser at Raindance Organic Farm.
"We set a price that pays for the labor of the farmers, and a lot of farms are able to pay employees a pretty reasonable rate," she says. "We try to do the right thing as business owners by growing food that's clean and taking care of our employees and building up their benefits so those jobs are attractive."

Lindsay Steele, co-founder of Garden Fort farm in Green Oak Township, says he began farming in 2013 but moved from Livingston County to Washtenaw County in 2022. Part of the reason was that Washtenaw County's government support and zoning were "way more welcoming to farming and new farmers," he says.

Steele notes that agriculture seems to be gaining momentum in Washtenaw County, with "a lot of cool farm-adjacent things happening in this area that help support people that decide to get into farming."
Lindsay Steele at Garden Fort farm.
Steele names Argus Farm Stop's Ann Arbor locations and Chelsea's Agricole Farm Stop as big supporters of local farms. Both employ a model that buys farmers' produce on consignment for sale in a year-round, all-local grocery. Steele also notes that Trinity Health offers a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm share basket that includes items grown on Trinity's farm but also contributions from local farms like his.

He also notes that a poultry slaughterhouse is coming to the area soon. 

"Those are the elements we need to have a food system so that new farms showing up can succeed in the end," Steele says. "I've been farming for a decade and have seen a lot of farms come and go. It's cool that they're showing up, but we need more robustness to our system to make sure they stay."

Is the trend sustainable?

Muehlhauser says that USDA farm surveys consistently find that more than 50% of farms have someone working off the farm to provide supplemental income. She says she feels lucky that farming is her full-time job and supports her family. She notes that having a consumer base willing to pay a little extra for local, organic produce is a huge part of her success.

Steele says various CSA and farm share box programs are a great way to support local farms right now, but in the future, he says we must "go beyond the small farm movement."

"We need to continue to scale our local farms so they can supply the region at comparable price points" to large industrial farms, he says.

Krauss says Washtenaw County has many policies and priorities that support the positive agricultural trend. For instance, she says Washtenaw County is home to Ann Arbor's "really cool" Greenbelt project and a Scio Township program that assists farmers in purchasing land.
Lindsay Steele at Garden Fort farm.
Since finding and affording land is the first and most critical challenge for a new farmer, those types of programs are critical, Krauss says. Sometimes, a farmer can't afford the amount of land it would take to be profitable or just can't find a bigger piece of land.

"With land prices being what they are, it's hard for a small, beginning farmer," she says.
Kristen Muehlhauser at Raindance Organic Farm.
Krauss notes that a project in Scio Township allows farms to buy land within a conservation easement at reduced rates. While they can farm a portion of the land, they must also protect the natural area associated with the plot of land as long as they own it.

"Washtenaw County has had a unique combination of intentional investment from private and public sources for at least 20 years," Krauss says. "It turns out that, when local government and private businesses and community foundations are really invested in creating a liveable food system, it really works."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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