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Spinniken: East Leland

Alan and Nancy Spinniken Farm 1 of 3 Farms to Be Preserved With $1.5 Million Grant

From our 2010 Fall Newsletter

When you have a gravely ill child, the term “family farm” can take on a whole new meaning. Nancy and Alan Spinniken say that without the help of his extended farming family—particularly Alan’s father Robert—they never would have made it through the worst year of their lives.

It was March of 1995 when Nancy noticed that her second youngest, Aaron, was pale and sleeping a lot. At first she thought the six-year-old just had the latest bug, but became alarmed when he took off his pajamas, revealing a funny rash and bruises on his arms. She whisked him off to their pediatrician and from that point on their lives turned upside down. Tests quickly confirmed the doctor’s suspicion that Aaron had leukemia. Worse yet, it was the type (AML) that was harder to treat and would require a bone marrow transplant if he were to survive.

Like most parents who have lived through this sort of trauma, even 16 years later Nancy can’t tell the story without weeping. “The doctor said that if we had waited even two more weeks, he might have died,” she says. “It was that serious.” Alan and his crew were in the middle of winter pruning on their 440-acre East Leland farm. The price of cherries, their major crop, had hit bottom, selling for just 4 cents a pound, down from 55 cents a pound in the 1970s when he had bought the farm. Things weren’t looking any better for the coming season.

But suddenly, none of that really mattered. Aaron had to get down to Grand Rapids to begin chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately, his sister Sarah was a perfect donor match.

Alan’s parents, Robert and Carol, had retired from farming and were wintering in Utah. One phone call had them on their way back to Leelanau to step in where needed. “We left the farm in March and didn’t return until September,” says Nancy. “We couldn’t have done it without them. Alan’s dad was a godsend. He took over the entire operation.”

Nancy’s dad, Donald Mullen, pitched in as well. Alan and the older children traveled back and forth but Nancy and the younger kids lived at the hospital. “Aaron did better when we were all there,” she says. In those days, Butterworth Hospital permitted the entire family to camp out in Aaron’s room.

Happily, Aaron recovered fully and today, at age 22, leukemia is just a distant memory. He helps run the farm and if all goes well, will one day take over the operation with his four siblings. They will be the fifth generation to work this land homesteaded by Alan’s great grandpa Matthew.

The Leelanau Conservancy is helping to make the generational transfer possible by securing an $866,000 Federal Farm and Ranchland Protection grant to permanently preserve 172 acres of the family farm. Under these kinds of conservation agreements, farmers are paid a portion of the difference between what their land would be worth as a residential subdivision and its underlying value for farming. The federal program contributes up to 50 percent of this value, and the Conservancy must raise a 25 percent match. The farm family is also required to forego 25 percent or more of the acreage’s cash value—this is considered a charitable donation for which there are federal tax incentives as well. Thereafter, the legal right to develop the land is extinguished forever, keeping the land available for farming for future generations. The land stays in private hands and remains on the tax rolls.

In the vast majority of cases, farmers like the Spinnikens couldn’t afford to transfer their land to the next generation without receiving compensation to support them in their retirement years. “There’s no way we could turn it over to our kids and they could assume that kind of debt,” says Alan. “We need to realize some value to be able to retire some day, and there’s not much in our ‘portfolio’ besides beautiful Leelanau County land.”

“The Spinniken farm represents some of the finest fruit growing land not only in Leelanau County but in the state of Michigan,” says Jim Nugent, former District Horticulturalist with MSU Extension and a Conservancy board member. “It’s great to know that it will always be available for fruit growing. This is land that has a globally rare microclimate and is virtually irreplaceable.”

Alan’s dad, who died in 2002 at the age of 78, “would be thrilled that the boys are so interested,” and that the farm will stay in the family, says Nancy.

The road to this point, however, has taken a fair amount of detours. “I never expected to be a farmer,” says Alan. “From fifth grade on I wanted to be a doctor.” He describes his early 20s as “drifting” and himself as “a philosophical young man.” He dropped out of school, traveled, worked construction.

“But I always found myself back here every summer,” says Alan. “I realized I kind of liked this.” When he met and married Nancy in 1978 that sealed the deal. Today they raise over a million pounds of tart cherries, 300,000 pounds of sweet cherries and 2,000 boxes of apples.

The price of cherries is still nowhere near what it was in the ‘70s, when the farm had five partners, and all of them made a comfortable living. Alan says the boom years at 55 cents a pound spurred over planting. And the industry has not hit on the right marketing strategy to push through the over supply. “The per-pound price can put you pennies away from poverty to wealth when you are talking about three million pounds,” says Alan. “We struggle to make it work.

Still, it’s a great life, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. “The kids who work for us on the farm, they miss it when they are gone,” says Nancy. “It gets into your bones. There’s something that runs deeper than a paycheck. Like being out on a tractor at seven a.m. and seeing a gorgeous sunrise.”

“We’re happy we can do this for our kids,” she adds. “You realize that the purpose is good beyond you and your own needs. We have confidence in the program. The Conservancy isn’t looking to control things. It doesn’t feel like government meddling. We’re keeping the land open so that the farm won’t die out with us.”