When you retire at 55 from the Chrysler Corporation as its assistant treasurer, and then become a cherry farmer for the next three decades, what does that look like? For Tom and Louise Lawton, it meant leaving their Birmingham life behind, rehabbing an old farmhouse and plugging into the Leelanau community in the 1970s.

The Lawtons have since passed away, but last year their four adult children forever preserved the family’s 210-acre farm near Suttons Bay. Daughter Kathy Heye says, “My parents would be so pleased. My dad loved that land and I hope he knows somehow that it’s always going to stay a farm.”

Winding along county roads north of Suttons Bay, past rows of cherries and high-density apples, you may have passed the beautiful Lawton Farm. In 2014, 20 acres of this property’s historic farmstead were protected by a donated conservation easement, with plans to preserve an additional 210 acres. Last September, the family’s goal to do just that was realized through a federal “purchase of development rights” program.

This project marked the fourth farm Leelanau Conservancy had protected in a 12-month period in which 670 acres were preserved. Over 5,000 acres of farmland are protected on the peninsula.

More great news for farmland lovers in Leelanau County; the Leelanau Conservancy will receive $2.7 million from United States Department of Agriculture’s “Regional Conservation Protection Program.” The conservancy collaborated with other partners that include the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, and the Conservation Resource Alliance to secure a total of $8 million for projects related to water quality and land protection.

“We expect that our share of the grant will protect between 500 and 800 acres of farmland that contribute to high water quality,” says Tom Nelson, the Leelanau Conservancy’s executive director. “Private donations leverage grant funding, as much as quadrupling the conservation impact on many projects.”

Finally, the Leelanau Conservancy is spearheading the launch of Farmer to Farmer, a new farmlink website. Its aim is to help buyers and sellers as well as lessors and lessees of farmland to connect, and to help farm employers find farm employees. “One of the biggest impediments facing young farmers is access to land, and we have a lot of aging farmers who will soon be retiring,” says Sam Plotkin, Farm Program Manager for the Leelanau Conservancy. “We hope this new site will help connect them with the next generation of farmers who are looking for land.”

This conservancy story is featured in the April 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!

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More on Farming:

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[Video] Back to the Land: Farmer Jess Piskor & Leelanau’s Agricultural Economy

Local Farm Market All-Star: Bear Creek Organic Farm

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski