PRESERVATION MEANS BUSINESS FOR STANEK FARMERS
July 2002–For those who take the back roads into the county, the rolling orchards of the Stanek Farm along County Road 633 have long been the place where one senses a change. The last remnants of the city fall away, and, like plunging into an oasis of green, the pastoral quality of Leelanau begins. Snaking up the road toward Crain Hill, the healthy, bushy-green apple and cherry trees that dip and rise in tidy rows on some of Leelanau’s most productive agricultural land line the highway like sentinels. The trees seem to go on for miles, and, in fact, they do.
To know that this drive and this land will stay essentially the same forever through a pending purchase of development rights is the biggest news yet on Leelanau’s fledgling farmland preservation front. In mid-June, the Stanek family, the State of Michigan and the Leelanau Conservancy came to an agreement that will ultimately preserve 320 acres of the Staneks 600-plus-acre holdings.
For brothers John and Jerry Stanek, fourth-generation farmers, the move was strictly a good business decision, says Jerry. “We had been exploring for about five years the different things we could do to generate cash flow for the farming operation,” says Jerry, who began talking with the Conservancy two years ago.
With a glut of cherries and the bottom falling out of the apple market, business had gotten tougher and tougher. This year’s freezing spring temperatures have destroyed the 2002 cherry crop, but the Staneks still have to prune trees, spray and buy fertilizer. There’s a name for years like this one. “It’s called a wipe-out,” says Jerry’s 83-year-old father, Gerald, whose great-great-grandfather settled this land back in 1883.
Even in good crop years, the Staneks, like other county farmers, are faced with the reality that their land is far more valuable when sold for residential development than it is for farming. Not only do high real estate prices make it nearly impossible to expand, offers from developers make it tempting to carve out a section of productive orchard. “It’s hard to turn down that kind of money,” says Jerry. But if you sell off land, he adds, it’s forever lost to farming, and your operation loses some of its viability. “Before you know it, you’re out of agriculture.”
After many discussions, the brothers decided a sale of development rights was the way to go. They still own their land, and can even resell it to another farmer, but will also be paid right now to agree not to develop it (the difference between what the land is worth as agricultural land versus residential land).
Meanwhile, they’ve kept their options open on their remaining acreage, which will likely increase in value when it abuts the preserved land. And, says Jerry, the acreage will stay in farming. “Whether it’s apples or cherries or grapes or some new plant that cures cancer, this land will be available to grow it,” he adds.
It took time for the brothers to feel comfortable with the idea of giving up their development rights. “The more I explored it and talked to John about it, the more it seemed like the most viable option,” says Jerry. “It’s not an easy thing to understand, and it takes getting educated. There are probably a lot of other farmers out there who might say, “Now why did you go and do that.”
“There’s this misconception out there that the Conservancy is trying to get land cheap, added Jerry. “It’s not true. They’ve worked hard to put this program together and it’s a win-win situation. That’s the way the Staneks are looking at it, anyway.”
In the deal, the Conservancy will buy 90 acres outright along CR 633 at Crain Hill Road. The Conservancy plans to find a conservation-minded buyer for the 90 acres who will accept restrictions prohibiting more than two home-sites on the land, preserving over 80 acres of this land that John and Jerry’s ancestors homesteaded.
Just north of the Conservancy’s purchase is an additional 230 acres of orchard land that will be protected through a sale of development rights (PDR) by the Staneks to the State of Michigan. The Conservancy helped the Staneks through the state’s application process and also provided 50% of the funds necessary to secure the deal.
“We hear there are 800 applications in right now with the state and feel pretty darn lucky,” says Jerry. “If the Conservancy hadn’t come up with the matching funds, we wouldn’t have been moved up the ladder.”
Despite the current state of Leelanau’s farming economy, Jerry is optimistic about the future. After this year, cherry surpluses will be gone, and in the last two years, 70% of cherry farmers have limited the amount of cherries that are taken to market, which will increase the demand, and therefore the price. “I do think the cherry business is going to turn around,” says Jerry. “It may take five or 10 years, but I think it’s going to happen. The problem is, a lot of guys may not be able to hold on that long–especially the smaller operations.”
Putting their land into an agricultural conservation easement will ensure that this part of their farm will always be available for farming. As for the Staneks? John, who toddled around the farm after his own father as soon as he could walk, also has a son with an interest in farming. Says his uncle: “Who knows, in 15 years maybe he’ll be able to take over, and there will be a 5th generation of Staneks working the land.”
The Stanek Farm: Beautiful land productive, yielding 2 million pounds of cherries and 8 million pounds of apples in the average year. “I don’t like to look at it as open space because in my mind ‘open space’ isn’t productive,” says Jerry. “I like to see something being grown on the land. It’s my farmer mentality.”
L to r: Brothers John and Jerry Stanek, their father Gerald Stanek and John’s son John.