‘A sad sight’: Ottawa Co. battles loss of farmland

Ottawa County

ZEELAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Leaders in Ottawa County are battling a rapid loss of farmland.

Between 2012 and 2017, the county reports losing 8% of its farmed acreage and 17% of its farms.

The county says many farmers, who are reaching retirement age and don’t have family members who want to continue the business, are choosing to sell to developers. Those developers then build over the existing farmland.

Zeeland Township Ratterink Dairy Farm
Raterink Dairy Farm in Zeeland Township. (Oct. 30, 2019)

“This used to all be farmland around here. As you can see, there are a lot of houses moving closer and closer,” said third-generation dairy farmer Michael Raterink as he pointed to a recently built subdivision near his family property. “It’s a sad sight to see.”

Raterink plans to take over his family’s farm soon. He says there have been a lot of circumstances pressuring his family to sell.

“One of the real struggles is that the value and the price of the land have gone up extremely in the last 30 or so years. For the younger generation who’s in their 20s and 30s, it’s hard to get started with a farm when you have to take on millions of dollars of debt,” Raterink said.

Zeeland Township Ratterink Dairy Farm
Raterink Dairy Farm in Zeeland Township. (Oct. 30, 2019)

Officials say this cycle is a part of the issue causing farmland loss in the county. They say it creates a market where it’s more difficult for medium-size farmers to survive and compete with big farms and developers.

“This is something we have been trying to prepare for and something we have been trying to curtail for years,” said Becky Huttenga with Ottawa County Economic Development.

Huttenga says while they are not sure what impact this loss of land and farms will have on the industry. However, they are certain they need more farmers coming into the market. The county is now working to find a solution to the problem at an upcoming meeting.

“We are looking at things like succession plans. Making sure that you have a succession plan in place so that transition can be smooth, and it will financially advantageous for the farmer aging out and retiring,” Huttenga said. “Other things are taxation policies, land use challenges.”

She noted agriculture is “big business” in Ottawa County. 

“We are the third-largest agriculture producing county in the state. The diversity of the products we grow here is second to none, so it’s really important that we focus on prime land preservation,” Huttenga said.

The county will discuss the issue during an event from 8:30 a.m. to noon Nov. 8 at the Spring Meadows Nursery in Grand Haven.

The free meeting is open to the public, but county officials are asking those who attend to register here.

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