On Tuesday, a group of Kent County residents got together to eat locally grown food and chat with one another. At the same time, they helped to save a local Kent County farm from urban sprawl.
The first Farm to Table to Farm fundraising event on August 6, started by Kent County Commissioner Stan Ponstein, overfilled its space at the Grand Rapids Brewing Company with a 100-person crowd, all gathered there for one purpose: to voice their support for preserving farmland in the rapidly developing county.
“I thought the event was very successful and was pleased with the turnout,” said former Michigan legislator Patty Birkholz. “We filled the room with more people than expected, which is a very good problem to have.”
Around 200 people provided donations to the event. All ticket sales went to purchasing the development rights to the 36-acre Kruitoff Farm in Kent City. By purchasing the development rights, the farm will be preserved as agricultural land in the county that cannot be used for any other purposes.
The gathered crowd was extremely enthusiastic throughout the event. Between bites of dishes prepared at Grand Rapids Brewing Co. from produce donated by local farms, spontaneous cheers went up throughout brief speeches made by Ponstein and several other speakers from United Growth for Kent County, WMEAC, Local First, and Kent County Commissioner Bill Hirsch.
While the Farm to Table to Farm event raised funds specifically for Kruitoff Farm, conversations throughout the event focused on the big picture of preserving agricultural land in Kent County. The enthusiasm is a sign of positive change, according to Ponstein. “The struggle for farmland preservation, at the county level, is a political battle. And that political battle has its swings one way or the other,” he said.
“ What we have to do is change the conversation. And we’ve got to hold events to bring more people into it and to make them more aware.”
According to Denny Heffron, chair of the Kent County Agricultural Board, there are many aspects of agricultural land that make it valuable to the Kent County community, and that have been driving the interest in agricultural preservation in Kent County.
Open farmland provides large swaths of green space that not only act as habitats for many species, but also absorb, filter, and slow down rain water drainage into the Grand River. Green space also does not absorb and release heat the way paved surfaces and concrete do (an effect known as the “urban heat island”), so it actually helps to keep our communities cooler.
Agricultural land is also extremely important to the economics of Kent County. Kent county land supports a surprising number of agricultural activities which makes it very valuable to the local community—annual profits from agricultural land total $149 million each year. “Kent county ranks number 4 in the state as far as dollars generated from agriculture,” said Heffron. “We’ve got the city of Grand Rapids in the middle of it, and it takes up a lot of Kent county. So it’s very productive—it’s just good farmland.”
Much of the produce from local farms is also processed in Kent County. The finished, processed foods are more valuable and can be exported out-of-state, helping to fuel the local economy. The jobs created by the food industry don’t hurt, either.
Preserving farms in Kent County also maintains a supply of healthy, local food. For Ponstein, this does not just mean selling produce at local farmers’ markets—it’s about security. “If we’ve got to rely on other countries for our food, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said. “We have one of the safest food supplies in the world, and these people all help the US through their farming. It’s a cause.”
Finally, Farmland preservation serves to prevent urban sprawl across the county. The County’s Purchase of Development Rights program ensures that agricultural land stays open and used for farming purposes, preventing any construction on the land.
“These farmers have had generations build that farm up into the viable operation it is now, and we’re going to plow it under and put asphalt down, and then put doublewides or homes that all look the same [on it]?,” said Ponstein, “You know, it’s just not the best kind of use for the ag land.”
“Asphalt is that ag land’s final crop,” he added. “It doesn’t revert back.”
According to Heffron, farm preservation programs in Kent County have been expanding since he began farming 30 years ago. Private investment in preserved farmland has also been on the rise, since investors do not need to worry about potentially losing the land to development in the future.
However, recent years have posed some difficulties to the program.
“We are facing some very real challenges,” said Birkholz. “In recent years, the Kent County Commission has regularly undervalued our farmland preservation program. The result has been an underfunded effort, which in turn means we are preserving less farmland and jeopardizing this critical component of our economy.”
While Ponstein feels there is still room for expansion of Grand Rapids, he also feels that preservation programs should move more rapidly. “We‘ve got to save our best farms, and the goal of the county as a result of their study in 2001, is to preserve 25,000 acres,” he said. “That’s 12 years ago. The county has only preserved 3,000 acres. And there’s probably 120,000 acres of ag land in Kent County.”
Ponstein is currently working on similar events to Tuesday’s Farm to Table to Farm fundraiser to bolster support for farmland preservation and raise funds to accomplish these goals, and is hoping that other organizations will support the farmland preservation efforts in the county.
“Do I want to be the only one doing it? No,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll get the word out, and we’ll get more help.”