Land is easier to access for Washtenaw County's small farmers, helping them buck national trends

Washtenaw County government and nonprofit entities are making it easier for small farmers to access farmland through innovative programs like conservation easements, farm linking, and more.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest agricultural census shows a continuing nationwide decline in the number of food-producing farms, driven in part by large companies' eagerness to buy up small farms. But in Washtenaw County, that trend has reversed since 2012, with the number of food-producing farms trending upward.

"Not all farmers are motivated by just getting a boatload of cash selling to a developer," says Susan LaCroix, land protection director for the Ann Arbor-based Legacy Land Conservancy. "A lot of these farms are centennial or sesquicentennial farms, with this strong family farming legacy they want to see carried forward."

Washtenaw County government and nonprofit entities are making it easier for small farmers to access farmland – and for retiring farmers to sell theirs – through innovative programs like conservation easements, farm linking, and more. We talked to farmers and nonprofit and government leaders about what Washtenaw County is doing right and how the community can further support local small farms.

Conservation easements

The City of Ann Arbor's Greenbelt program recently offered 54 acres of reduced-price land to two local farmers, the first conserved property under a new "buy, protect, sell" (BPS) initiative. Through the initiative's scoring system, the Greenbelt Advisory Commission selected two farmers to split the property, with the south side going to Kristen Muehlhauser of Raindance Organic Farm and the north side to Matt Demmon of Feral Flora.

Muelhauser and Demmon may farm a portion of the land while also honoring an easement placed on the deeds to the land that restricts development and protects the land as farmland or natural area indefinitely.

Conservation easements aren't new to Ann Arbor, but this specific BPS initiative is the first of its kind in the city. In 2022, the city purchased a 54-acre farm in Northfield Township. The city later split it into two lots, and, in June, sold it through the BPS initiative at a fixed, reduced rate to reflect the conservation easement applied to the land. Applicants had to meet eligibility guidelines including being "land insecure" —  they had to own no land or be a small farmer — and had to meet an income limit.
Doug CoombeKristen Muehlhauser of Raindance Organic Farm's farmland in Northfield Township.
Rosie Pahl Donaldson, land acquisition supervisor for Ann Arbor's Parks and Recreation Services department, says BPS is still a "fairly new idea" that nonprofits have been using for about 10 years in northeastern parts of the U.S., but it's less common for municipalities to use this strategy.

"It's mostly about farm succession, making sure there's a good farmer on the land," she says.

Pahl Donaldson says the city's BPS program favored applicants who produced food and fiber for human consumption, and already had connections to local markets that would like to source goods from these farms.
courtesy Rosie Pahl DonaldsonAnn Arbor's Parks and Recreation land acquisition supervisor Rosie Pahl Donaldson.
She says a private landowner will approach the city or a nonprofit that facilitates easements and ask them to purchase a conservation easement on the farmland. The city then pays the landowner and records the easement that restricts usage of the property, "primarily to keep it in agriculture," Pahl Donaldson says. 

She notes that the city prides itself on its sustainability efforts, and conservation easements are one of those strategies. 

A frequent partner in creating conservation easements is the Legacy Land Conservancy (Legacy). LaCroix says neither the city nor Legacy own conservation easements, but rather put a restriction on them through the conservation agreement.

"We become a permanent partner with the landowners we're working with," she says. Even if the farmer gives the land to their kids or grandkids, "we remain the permanent partner in that property," LaCroix explains. 

That also means that Legacy serves as a monitoring agency, checking once a year to make sure the terms of the agreement are being kept and the land is being used as was agreed upon. Legacy staff do so for the nonprofit's own properties and also on behalf of Ann Arbor's Greenbelt program.

Legacy Development Director Krista Gjestland notes that Legacy focuses mainly on two conservation tools: Legacy's system of nature preserves open to the public, and conservation easements.
Doug CoombeMatt Demmon of Feral Flora's farmland in Northville Township.
"We hold more than 100 conservation easements, and we've been using this tool since the 1990s," Gjestland says.

LaCroix says that while Legacy's focus is on protecting natural and agricultural areas from development, farmers often inquire about these easements for reasons that have less to do with eco-friendliness and more to do with passing down their own legacies.


Gjestland notes that a major shift is coming in Michigan's agricultural scene, as the average farmer in Michigan right now is in their upper 50s.

"The farming community itself is aging, and without removing some of these barriers, you're going to see local food production just slowly trickle down," she says.
Doug CoombeConant Farm in Salem Township.
A newer player addressing just that issue is MIFarmlink. The program started as an initiative of Ottawa County government but has since expanded to serve the entire state. It links retiring farmers who want to sell land with newer farmers looking to get into farming or expand their holdings.

"We've begun to concentrate in Washtenaw County really just in the last year or so," says MIFarmLink Executive Director Jill Dohner. 

Helping farmers find land is a primary goal, but farm-linking is also a way for farmers to find resources, learn about best practices, network, and maybe even find mentorship, she says.
courtesy Jill DohnerMIFarmLink Executive Director Jill Dohner.
Dohner calls Becky Huttenga, the initiative's founder who still serves on the advisory board, the "grandmother of MIFarmLink."

As agriculture and economic resources coordinator for Ottawa County, Huttenga won a small grant in 2020 through a USDA farmers and ranchers development program to establish a county-wide farm-linking program.

Huttenga says Michigan has the second highest agricultural diversity in the U.S., and to stay a leader in that area, some kind of linking program was necessary. A few regional attempts at farm-linking have been tried in the past but are longer in operation. But farm-linking programs are robust in other states, so Huttenga says it "made a lot of sense" to set up a farm-linking platform in MIchigan.

She says she's excited to see colleagues from Washtenaw County join the effort and expand the land offerings on the platform. She says doing this at a county or even regional level "is just not robust enough."

"We always knew we wanted to go statewide," she says.
Doug CoombeBeehives at Conant Farm in Salem Township.
Dohner says MIFarmLink is already more popular with farmers in Washtenaw County than in Ottawa County, where it originated. 

"We're excited to launch out of Ottawa to Washtenaw County," Huttenga says. "It gave it a shot in the arm, and it's starting to grow."

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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