Northern Michigan Farming: Glen Noonan's Acres

Northern Michigan Farming: In 1944, young Merchant Marine Glen Noonan, of Leelanau County, Michigan, stood watch on an oil tanker floating on a dark sea. It was late in the Second World War, so prowling German U-Boats were no longer a problem. But mines were. Part of his job was to scan the waters for explosives eight hours at a time, and be prepared to take command of a lifeboat if the need should arise. But at night, when the sea is black, how can you tell when the tanker is approaching a mine? Well, you can’t, really. The first indication will be when an explosion rips through your hull.

“You were looking pretty careful,” Noonan says. “And everything was dark.”

Noonan’s wartime experience, remembered in an interview 68 years later, seemed to set the pattern for the rest of his life. Long periods of quiet observance, then short bursts of decision and action. This pattern of observe, learn, then act, has served him and his community well. It is how he came back to this area after a period of post-war wandering and built a future for himself and his family and eventually protected hundreds of acres of the Leelanau County that he loves.

Noonan’s ability to listen and learn before he acts decisively has made him a leader in his community. It’s not that he’s “in charge” of much, really—being a road commission member is his only official position. But his success as a farmer, as a business owner, and his ability to both reflect and shape the sentiments of his community make the 86-year-old Leelanau County living legend a true grass-roots leader in ways that the most polished politician could only envy.

Nothing illustrates this more than one recent journey Noonan took. But this adventure did not take him through mine-infested waters. This journey was part intellectual, part emotional and very close to home. His starting point was opposition to a 2006 ballot tax proposal promoted by the Leelanau County Farmland Preservation Board to raise taxes slightly to pay for preservation of county farmland. Noonan, like many in the county, was ideologically opposed to a tax increase to pay for preservation of private land. Noonan’s lack of support was likely one of the causes that led to the farmland preservation ballot proposal not passing.

That was the beginning of his journey.

Here was his destination: Noonan eventually helped the Leelanau Conservancy come up with a creative way of preserving land in a county that is under increasing economic pressure to build, and he ended up donating a conservation easement over large chunks of his own land—506 acres in total—to keep pristine for his family and friends to enjoy forever.

Noonan arrived at this destination just in time, explains Thomas Nelson, director of farm programs for the Leelanau Conservancy. “We expect, because of the interest in Leelanau County, that the real estate market, which has been pretty quiet, relatively speaking, since 2008, will rebound here faster than anywhere else in the state.” It is inevitable that developers will come back to Leelanau in the future and once again put pressure on land owners like Noonan to sell off the county’s iconic places, such as large tracts of pristine forest and waterfront.

Development dollars can be tempting for farmers when times get lean. “There’s always someone wanting to buy property,” says Glen Noonan’s son David. “Dad has taught us that if you’ve got the land, you don’t need the money. Don’t sell it because, if you get the money, the money goes pretty fast.”

Glen Noonan, his voice quiet and a bit rough and scratchy with age, sat down with his sons at his dining room table to discuss the donation of his land, and to talk about his life. “I just feel that I’d like to see other people enjoy it for years to come,” Noonan says. “You can’t imagine what this will be like 25, 50 years from now. It helps to preserve what I have enjoyed.

“God has been very good to me. Very good to me. And I like to share. I never was a stingy person. That’s why I gave the development rights … to the conservancy.” So, how did he go from farmland mileage opposition to donation of development rights in just five short years? On one level, he saw that the interests of his family and that of the conservancy happened to meet on his land. But just as much, that transition is rooted in Noonan’s character.

To discover the beginnings of that, we need to first go back to 1944, onboard that oil tanker. He was on a trip to Odessa in the Ukraine when he first heard that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died and Harry Truman was the new president.

“My father was a Republican,” Noonan says. “But we all could see the good that Roosevelt had done for the country.”

“My father was a Republican, but we all could see the good that Roosevelt had done for the country.”

Noonan, too, is a lifelong Republican, and, in these polarized political times, it is not exactly the GOP party line to praise FDR and the alphabet soup of New Deal government work programs he created during the Depression. But, as he would illustrate throughout his life, you listen, you observe, then you make a judgment. Sometimes, that means ideology goes out the window in favor of pragmatism. It is why this Republican, out in the middle of the Black Sea in 1944, grieved over the death of FDR.

“President Roosevelt did do an awful lot, I think, for the country. And this is from a Republican,” Noonan says. “He is one of the better, more thoughtful presidents … when he started the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) camps and those kinds of things that put a lot of unemployed people to work. And, not only put them to work, but taught them how to work.”

And, he says, Roosevelt was different as a politician. He really wanted to help. He represented “the people,” rather than “self-interests.” It is a lesson that he has tried to remember throughout his life as a businessman and politician.

“We were pretty much the same as all families: poor.”

Born on November 26, 1926, Noonan’s earliest memories were of being poor in Leelanau County. “We were pretty much the same as all families: poor,” he says. Noonan grew up working on his father’s farm and getting side work with whoever would hire him. In the summertime, he picked cherries. In the fall, apples. When he became old enough during World War II, he did what millions of patriotic young Americans did. He went to enlist in the Army. But they wouldn’t take him. A childhood injury had left two of his fingers disabled, which disqualified him from serving in the military.

Discouraged, he went back home. Soon afterward, on a day he was helping a neighbor dig potatoes, he read that the Merchant Marines wanted recruits—and they were a little less picky. “So, I took off for Detroit, and they said, Sure, you’re all right,” Noonan remembers, laughing.

But the life expectancy of the men who joined the Merchant Marines was no joke. Some statistics show that their odds of getting killed were higher than any military branch. And Noonan was serving with a rough crowd—those who were not accepted into regular branches of the service for various reasons. “Dad always told us, the Merchant Marines, they were the roughest guys,” says his son Roger Noonan. “They were the ones they took off the streets.”

But it was aboard Merchant Marine vessels that Noonan first taught himself the basics of capitalism. Every sailor was allocated a certain number of cigarettes. He did not smoke, so he sold his smokes to his colleagues.

After the war, Noonan thought of nothing but returning home to Leelanau County and continuing to farm the land he loved. But he wanted to do it on his own terms. He was determined not to return home until he had enough money to buy the farm from his father. So, he went off on a five-year cross-country adventure. He found mostly labor jobs and built a résumé that reads like a Woody Guthrie song. “I couldn’t stay in one place; I had to keep moving,” he says.

“I couldn’t stay in one place; I had to keep moving.”

Noonan began in Nebraska, raising cows. But fluctuating milk prices made that an undependable source of income. So, he went off to Texas to work at a zinc smelter, where he built freight cars. When he got enough money to get out of there, Noonan went to California to pick apricots. The end of his half-decade-long odyssey found him in Oregon, where he rented a patch of land to raise beets.

Work, watch, stay flexible, get ready to take action when a better opportunity comes along. “Flexibility is a very important factor in a person’s life,” Noonan says. “You bet.” All the while, his one goal was “home, home is the main thing,” he says. In 1950, Noonan was ready. He returned in triumph to Leelanau County, cash in hand and bought his father’s farm. So, for the next 11 years, he and his wife, Ella, whom he met while out West, were content to just farm and raise their ever-growing family.

In 1961, all that changed. That is when a man named Max Wysong approached Noonan offering to sell his gravel pit in Kasson Township. A handshake and $6,300 later, Noonan was now a businessman in addition to farmer. “In order to keep farming, you had to have other incomes,” he says.

“He was always looking ahead,” says son Roger. Noonan’s purchase of the Polack Lake property, land that is an anchor in Noonan’s conservancy donation, is a clear example. “In order to do that, he had to make money,” Roger says. “And he did it whatever way he could do it. Finally, he was able to buy it. He was always looking ahead. How am I going to get the money to pay for that?”

Noonan’s success as a farmer and businessman, along with his reputation for honest dealing, has earned him a place on the county’s road commission for the past 43 years—most recently being re-elected to the post in 2012.

Over the years, Noonan saw that it can sometimes be difficult for a farmer to make a living. And when times get tough, or a farmer wants to retire and the kids don’t want to farm, and the right money is put on the table … that’s when the land is changed irrevocably, because the temptation to sell can be irresistible. And, as word about Leelanau County’s beauty spreads its way virally across the country, the temptation will only increase.

Noonan takes the long view. He’s lived here long enough. He sees struggling farmers selling their land—their legacy to their children—to wealthy investors. “More people come in with a lot of money,” he says. “And they’re expanding their territories and helping to promote and control what can happen with the surrounding properties.” Yet, Noonan knows that change is inevitable. “People die, property changes,” he concedes.

“People die, property changes.”

And that is where the second part of Noonan’s story begins. He has observed the changing land through nearly a century. So, after a lifetime of observation, he took action. But before that could happen, he had to first learn more about the Leelanau Conservancy. Nelson, the conservancy’s farm programs director, says Noonan has been “a well-known landowner in the conservancy’s eyes” for a long time simply because of the amount of forest and farmland he owns. He’s always been a generous steward of that land, Nelson says, often willing to share its beauty with anybody who asked permission to hike or snowmobile on one of his properties.

“At the same time, Glen made it very clear that he was philosophically in disagreement about some of the tools at our disposal to conserve land,” Nelson says. “The idea of severing property rights by the legal tools that we have available didn’t make sense from his standpoint.”

And in 2006, Noonan’s lack of support was likely one of the causes that helped defeat the Farmland Preservation Board’s attempt to fund the county’s farmland preservation program. “I never heard that Glen was publicly speaking out against it, but I think it was well-known that he did not favor the proposal,” Nelson says. “And for somebody with Glen’s stature, that was possibly enough to be influential.”

After the defeat, the conservancy decided to find out what went wrong. Dan Scripps, now an energy consultant, joined the conservancy staff in 2007 and began doing interviews. “I figured if we didn’t talk to the people who were opposed, we were going to have a hard time creating anything that would work,” Scripps says. He sat down at Noonan’s kitchen table and talked for about 45 minutes about Noonan's views on how to keep land in agricultural production, what his goals were.

“After about 45 minutes, he looked at me and said, ‘You’re really not here to sell me on anything, are you?’ ” Scripps says. “I think that sort of changed the conversation. He became generous in providing his insights and thoughts. It was more about relationships. That was the thing that I took away from the conversation with Glen, that relationships matter an awful lot.”

Out of the conversation between Scripps and Noonan came the idea to enter into short-term 10-year preservation contracts with landowners. During that time, the landowners can get some help deciding how to best protect their land for future generations.

It was risky for the conservancy because there was no assurance of a deal at the end of 10 years. “We presented some of these ideas at regional conferences of land trust alliances and others. To say that people in the audience were skeptical would be an understatement,” Scripps says.

Scripps has taken the Noonan lesson with him. “I think I’m probably least effective when I think I’ve got the answers figured out. That might be the Glen Noonan lesson,” he says. “That was my most rewarding experience at the conservancy—that conversation and what came out of it.”

The talk was rewarding for Noonan, too. His thoughts about conservation easements as a tool for passing along important family-held properties were likely influenced by his conversation with Scripps, and in 2011 he approached the organization with a proposal.

"…It’s very near and dear to my heart, and I’d like it to stay the way it is.”

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Nelson recalls Noonan as saying. “I have this land that has been in my family for a long time. It’s very near and dear to my heart, and I’d like it to stay the way it is.” That eventually led to Noonan donating the largest conservation easement in the Leelanau Conservancy’s history, embracing forest, farmland, Polack Lake and Noonan’s boyhood home. He dedicated the donation to Ella, who had passed just months before the arrangements with the conservancy were finalized.

Nelson believes Noonan’s donation has caused some folks to re-examine the conservancy. “I can tell you that there are a number of interested families that have told us that Glen Noonan’s decision influenced their interest in working with us.”

Noonan is very much tied to the land of Leelanau County. He enjoys the four very distinct seasons, though his favorite time is spring. “All the flowers are coming. Trees are blooming leaves.” Although, at age 86, he cannot do as much walking on his land as he used to.

In the end, Noonan would rather not be remembered as a politician, a businessman or a landowner or land preservationist. How would he like to be remembered? “Just like I am,” he says. “Honest, helpful, never afraid to help another person.”  

Howard Lovy writes from Traverse City. He is a frequent contributor to Crain’s Detroit Business. [email protected]

This article and additional photos are also available in the March 2013 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Get your copy now!

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