Ecological restoration is a labor of love that works to reverse time and damage that has stripped a land of its native biodiversity. Restoring an ecosystem to its natural state is a healing process that takes time, care, and intention; however, the efforts are well worth it. Restoration increases a land’s biodiversity, which in turn, helps increase ecosystem services. Ecosystem services can be defined simply as the wide range of benefits humans receive from ecosystems. Things like providing quality food and water, regulating the climate, and creating healthy soil formation are all examples of ecosystem services.
77 acres of Michael Ulrich’s Empire farm have been protected by a private conservation easement (CE) that closed in early September. You won’t find meticulous rows of fruit trees or other crops here. The biggest output from Michael’s farm will be new farmers, and native seeds.
Michael bought his farm in 2013 to create a local genotype seed and plant nursery for local restoration projects. “I find it problematic to import seeds from Minnesota to do restoration in this region,” he said. His nursery stock is based on locally collected seeds.
As a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison he studied ecological restoration. While attempts at ecological restoration were first initiated in Wisconsin following the dust bowl, he noted this kind of restoration was lacking in Leelanau County.
The economic downturn of 2008 provided him an opportunity to buy affordable land in Leelanau. That opportunity came in the form of a small ranch house on 92 acres of land in Empire. With the help of a Farm Service Agency program, Michael was able to finance the property.
“I always knew that I wanted to remake nature, but I didn’t know if something like that existed,” Michael said. “Taking a native prairie or woods back to what it once was, that’s what I wanted to do. Wisconsin has been working on this kind of restoration for 40 years.”
As a child, Michael’s house was always filled with nature field guides. In an intro botany class at Northland College, he was surprised when he was the only one who could identify various woodland species in a slide show. While visiting Mount Desert Island, Maine, he saw a botanical garden that had miniature versions of the different islands’ ecosystems. Michael’s interest was piqued. Upon graduating from Northland, he was told about an internship at the Leopold Center. Upon discovering it was an internship for graduate students only, Nina Leopold, renowned conservationist, and daughter of famed naturalist Aldo Leopold, kindly directed him to the nearby International Crane Foundation.
The foundation’s focus was on saving the world’s crane species, in part, through an on-site captive breeding program. The abandoned forty-acre ‘sand farm’ was in its early stages of restoration. It was there that he learned to collect seeds from prairie remnants, make seed mixes, and plant them back into the ground, restoring prairies and wetlands. While not known for prairies, Leelanau possesses Great Lake Barrens, a grassland type. With a combination of these species, as well as dune and beach species, he is creating the ability for location-appropriate grassland restorations.
“There aren’t many prairies up here in Leelanau, but there are a lot of species on the dunes that would be considered Bearberry and creeping juniper,” he said. “They like these sandy areas that are super dry and super-hot. Here I am, decades later, able to have the same opportunity to restore native species.”
He’ll be able to give others the opportunity he had through farm internships. Making use of the designated Farmstead Complexes within his CE, Michael hopes to be able to provide housing for farm interns. Internships will span from short-term stays that last a few weeks, to longer term commitments that last up to three years. This farm incubator model will grow aspiring farmers and restoration ecologists’ confidence and provide hands-on experience with what it takes to pursue their calling.
“Let’s say I had someone who wanted to have a milking herd of goats. We would get a couple goat pairs, but that intern would be completely responsible for them. At the end of three years, they would get half of all the animals we have raised so they could get a business loan with experience, a business plan, and some capital.”
Some of the farm will be used to grow grain and hay to provide food for livestock incorporated to eat knapweed and increase soil productivity. Produce will be grown for the farm interns, with any surplus going to a farm stand or a farmers’ market. Additionally, Michael has started growing diverse kinds of fruit and nut trees to create a small food forest that will also be available to farm workers. When not being used on his own farm, harvested seeds will be used for other restoration projects, and propagation of native potted plants that will go for sale locally.
Along with attempts to restore grasslands based on prairie species that occur in the region and outlying counties, he is experimenting with other models such as permaculture, creating food forests with a mixture of tree species native to other states and lower Michigan. “I’m creating what I’ve termed synthetic ecosystems, which produce food and other ecosystem services without the need for annual tilling. The shade of these food forests will also assist knapweed control.”
Delicate and magical looking plants abound throughout the farm. Hard to find Princess Pine laces trail edges, slow-to-grow Lichen stretches like a shag rug across various clearings, and tiny, neon orange mushrooms dot the woodland floors.
“This property hasn’t been farmed since the late 50s and 60s, so these native plants have had all this time to grow.”
He is experimenting with combinations of grasses, trees, and shrubs to see what works. A stroll through an open pine forest is a classroom of different kinds of growing berries. He points out common Northern Michigan berries, like raspberries and blueberries, but he’s also experimenting with species that do not grow here commonly like cranberries, honeyberries, thimbleberries, and even lingonberries. Almost all look promising, with plump green leaves sprouting.
“The blueberries are the only ones struggling, funny enough, everything else is doing great. It all goes back to the soil.”
The soil. The lifeblood of the land. Michael understands and reveres it. His farming plan is based in regenerative farming – a method that promotes soil quality by replenishing organic life back into the soil. Not only is regenerative farming better for the produce, but it also aids in reversing climate change by drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere and into the soil. Low and no till farming, composting, and crop rotation are just a few regenerative farming practices that help keep the soil healthy. Native plants also contribute to soil health, making these farming techniques an ideal addition to Michael’s ecological restoration. “When you take care of nature, nature takes care of you. Keeping this land undeveloped was something that I wanted to do anyway, but it would have been really hard for me to afford to do that. The Conservancy has helped make this all possible.”
Director of Farmland & Easement Programs Kim Hayes is happy to have such a unique and diverse farmland permanently protected.
“When I first visited Michael’s farm and talked with him about his unique farming vision for it, I felt a strong motivation to find a mechanism to assist him,” she said. “The land fully meets the farmland protection criteria of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Conservancy. The regenerative farming model which also involves farming native species was super intriguing. I cannot wait to see Michael’s vision come true.”
Funding: This farmland was protected in partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through their Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).