Michigan’s fastest-growing county remains committed to preserving farmland

Ottawa County is an agricultural powerhouse. Its farms produce more than $506 million in products annually, making it the third-highest producing agricultural county, behind Huron and Allegan counties.

Ottawa is also the fastest growing county in the state and has a low unemployment rate, which means a high demand for land to develop into housing. Between 2012 and 2017, the county lost 8% of its farmed acreage and 17% of its farms.

So the challenge is how to balance the demands of a growing population with preserving farmland that contributes to the region’s food supply. 

In 2008, the county passed an ordinance to preserve farmland under the Planning Act. At the time, there were 90 acres of protected farmland. It’s now about 1,200 acres.

Movement slowly building

“Farmland preservation kind of moves at a glacial pace,” says Becky Huttenga, Ottawa County’s agriculture and economic resources coordinator, during a March 24 presentation to county commissioners. “It's a little frustrating. It’s hard. It takes a long time to raise money. It takes a long time to close.”

One tool is the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Program. Funded through a combination of private donations and state and federal grants, the program preserves farmland through the purchase and donation of development rights for actively farmed property. 

This voluntary program allows participating landowners to receive compensation for the development potential of their land, yet still retain ownership and other rights associated with it through a permanent easement.

The most recent success story is Shady Side Farm, which was recently awarded a $168,750 grant from Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development farmland preservation funds. The grant will help pay for an agricultural easement to permanently protect the 123 acres of farmland in Olive Township.

Mike Bronkema, co-owner and operator of Shady Side Farm, is committed to preserving the land for future generations to farm.

"In '92 we bought the farm that we're on," the Holland-area native says in a release from the county highlighting the PRD program. "The farmer that sold me the land that I'm on wanted to see it preserved. He wanted me to buy the farm because he knew I was going to farm it instead of subdividing it." 

Sheep browse at Shady Side Farm in Olive Township. The Bronkemas raise grass-fed Polypay sheep for both meat and wool. (Ottawa County)

Years later, Bronkema was part of the committee that helped push for the Agriculture Preservation Board he sits on today. "I realized that preserving farmland in Ottawa County was important, and that whatever we did had to benefit the farmers."
While sitting on the board helped him understand the process, it didn’t guarantee he would get a grant.

"(Sitting on the board) has nothing to do with it," Bronkema says. "Put it this way. It's all the practices that you put in, in your farming, on your farm, in things that you're doing to improve sustainability in your farm, that gets you approved for farmland preservation."

Focus on sustainability

What did help with the process was Bronkema's prior experience securing grants to realize his goals for Shady Side Farm, which includes adopting a variety of conservation practices. 

"We've chosen to put in a lot of different (sustainability) practices that are not considered common on the farm," Bronkema says. "Farmland preservation is just an extension of some of those programs -- they're interconnected."

Although small compared to some farms, the Bronkemas have a diversified array of products, including beef cattle; lamb for meat and wool; and organic dry beans and grains including corn, wheat, oats, and barley.

"We diversified one piece at a time," says Bronkema. "The sheep ended up bringing in what we needed into the operation to change the crops out there in the field. In raising the crops, we figured out we had to have a different marketing strategy than what we were doing conventionally."

The Bronkemas will be the sixth farming family to protect their land through Ottawa County's PDR program. 

Creating easements through the sale of development rights guarantees the land is used for agricultural purposes or remains in a natural state in perpetuity. Landowners are compensated for lost development potential, yet still own the land and retain all other rights associated with it. 

The Bronkema easement brings the number of acres protected by the PDR program to 566. This is in addition to 654 acres permanently preserved by the State of Michigan.

PDR applications are being accepted through April 30.

For more information on the Purchase of Development Rights program and other county efforts to ensure that the local agricultural industry continues to thrive for generations, visit MiOttawa.org/Farmland.

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