Fostering Farmland Futures: How Vestergaard is Doubling His Vision with Help from Scio Township's Preservation Program
Note: The following is by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, Feature Writer
“I don’t think of myself as the owner of farmland,” explains Denmark native Michael Vestergaard, who raises cattle, pigs, and chickens on the 113-acre Frederick Farm at 4408 Wagner Road. “I am a strong believer that farmers are the stewards of the land, charged with farming wisely and preserving the land for the future.”
This month [April] Vestergaard and his two sons are not only tending to business on their farm, they are also busy building fences and making plans to expand their cattle herd onto the nearby 101-acre Renz Farm, which is situated on Wagner between Liberty and Scio Church roads. Vestergaard acquired the property in June 2022, with the help of Scio Township’s innovative new Buy-Protect-Sell land preservation program.
“When I decided to move to America, my dream was to own a farm that would hand-raise free-range, grass-fed, chemical-free animals in a humane way for the people of my community,” the farmer explains. When he bought the Frederick Farm in 2009, his dream came true: he raises free-range herds of cattle and pigs there, as well as flocks of chickens, and sells their meat in his barn-red farm stand on Wagner Road.
And now his dream has doubled in size, thanks to Scio’s land preservation program, which offers to buy conservation easements on rural properties, ensuring that they will remain agricultural into the future.
“Because of the unique nature of the [Renz] property, its preservation and use were very important, not only to Scio Township, but also to our region. We had to move fast when we heard it was for sale,” says Barry Lonik, consultant to Scio Township’s Land Preservation Commission and the principle of Treemore Ecology and Land Services.
Although the Renz property has always been identified as prime agricultural land, the township’s master plan does permit one-acre residential development there—"and with its close proximity to downtown Ann Arbor, we knew that developers would jump at the chance to acquire the land when they heard it was for sale,” Lonik says. “That motivated us to work fast.”
The township’s dedicated millage provides funds to purchase conservation easements on lands that a 2004 survey rated as “high-priority properties.” Under the CE terms, property owners agree to maintain the property as farmland, forgoing any future possibility of developing or subdividing it. In exchange, they are paid the difference between its value as farmland and its value if sold for development. The program benefits the community by preserving the landscape and promoting locally grown produce and meats. And the program benefits local farmers and landowners, who often struggle to stay in business and/or in their homes.
“For several years, I had been looking around for more land, but I quickly learned I would have to go very far from Ann Arbor to find land I could afford,” Vestergaard says. “Then I heard that Scio Township was interested in buying a conservation easement [CE] for the Renz Farm.”
Vestergaard and other local farmers toured the property, then submitted proposals for plans to ensure the farm’s conservation and food production. “Three proposals were really good,” Lonik acknowledges, “but Michael Vestergaard’s was ever so slightly better, especially since he owned farmland nearby (2 ½ miles away) and he offered to hold educational programs there.”
In order to buy the easement, the township cobbled together funds from local, regional, state, and national sources: Scio Township’s millage, the Ann Arbor Greenbelt Initiative, Washtenaw County Natural Areas Preservation Program, Michigan Agricultural Preservation Fund, and the federal Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The Renz heirs were then paid “just shy of $3 million” for the conservation easement, and Vestergaard paid them $330,000 after signing the CE, guaranteeing the land will forever remain agricultural.
“I’ve never dealt with so much money and so many funding sources in all my years in preservation,” Lonik adds, awe in his voice.
Vestergaard was officially awarded the farm last June. Immediately afterwards, the Scio Township fire chief called the township’s attention to the fact that nine of those acres would be ideal for the site of a future fire station. Vestergaard agreed to amend the contract, but until funding is approved for a new fire station, he can use the land as pasturage.
Raised on a dairy farm in Denmark, Vestergaard earned a degree in agriculture from Ladelund Landbruggsskole before moving to Michigan permanently in 1992. He owned a small farm in Scio before purchasing the Frederick Farm in 2009. Despite his ambitious plans, he still maintains a “day job,” constructing large playgrounds around the country, in order to support his family, flocks, and herds.
He raises free-range cattle, pigs, and chickens by hand, without chemicals, and he sells their meats, as well as other local products, in his barn-red store on Wagner Road. Recently he has also signed contracts to provide meat for several Ann Arbor restaurants. The acquisition of the Renz Farm allows him to substantially increase his herds and flocks—"how many depends on the market.”
Last year the new owner had just enough time to produce a hay crop on the Renz fields. This year the farm will shed its sleepy demeanor, as fences are built and cattle return to its fields. Vestergaard had hoped to restore the farmhouse, but that may not happen. “I had builders inspect the farmhouse, hoping to restore it, but we discovered that its foundation is cracked and there are other serious issues,” the new owner says. “We could build a new house for less money than it would take to restore the house. Unfortunately, I think we’ll have to do that.” Down the road, he also plans to build new barns.
In 1920, the Renz family purchased 101 acres of flat or gently rolling hills, plus a Victorian farmhouse and barns built in 1890, and wood lots with stands of mature trees. A century later, just before owner Harold “Dick” Renz died, his farm received official designation as a Centennial Farm
The house might be aging and most of the outbuildings have disappeared, but otherwise, Vestergaard’s new property looks much the same as it did in 1920, including two wood lots with eleven acres of mature trees. For years, the Renz fields had been used for hay, so Vestergaard will have a relatively easy time restoring the soil, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture rates as “prime” on three-quarters of the farm and “locally important” on the remainder.
“Land is a farmer’s greatest investment,” Lonik points out. “When farmers can negotiate a conservation easement, they can draw value from their property while it is preserved as farmland in perpetuity.”
The Renz property brings the total acreage Scio Township has preserved to 1,708. “Scio recognizes that its heritage is rooted in a vibrant agricultural life,” Lonik says. “We don’t have to look very far to see communities whose heritage and farm lands have completely disappeared.”
This is the second large and endangered farm Scio preserved in two years, immediately following the deaths of two eighty-some-year-old owners.
In 2020, the township swept the 160-acre Aprill Farm at the corner of Scio Church and Zeeb roads right from under the nose of a developer who had offered $4 million for the property. Because of the advanced state of the heirs’ negotiations with the developer, when the township learned the owners might be open to an alternative to development, the land preservation committee immediately scraped together all its funds--$2.3 million—to buy the Aprill Farm outright. Then they scrambled to secure preservation grants and a farmer to buy the property.
Six months later, Richard Andres, owner of Chelsea’s Tantre Farm, called Lonik, telling him his mother was interested in investing in an organic farm operation and asking if he knew of an available farm suitable for organic gardens. “Have I got a farm for you!” Lonik told him.
The township sold the Aprills’ acreage, farmhouse, and outbuildings to the Andres Trust for $660,000, and found funding from preservation groups to cover the $1.7 million CE costs. “We had never done anything on that scale before, but we had to move fast because of the pending sale and grant deadlines,” Lonik concedes. He admits that the headlong procedure “raised some kerfuffle,” which led to the township’s adoption of its Buy-Protect-Sell Program, which was first implemented in the Renz Farm negotiations. This time, the township gathered its funding resources and bought the conservation easements directly from the Renz heirs, then asked for proposals from local organic farmers interested in purchasing the property.
Vestergaard plans to build barns, offer farm programs, and provide land for community gardens, but most of the Renz farm will be dedicated to pasturage for herds and flocks. He houses the free-range chickens in rolling coops, which are moved around the fields. The additional land will allow him to raise 2,000 chickens and 200 hogs annually, nearly double last year’s numbers. But free-range cows require more space.
“We have to count on an acre of pasture for every cow. They need land to graze on in the summer, and we need land to grow enough hay to feed them through the winter.” As he builds new fences on the old Centennial Farm, he is making plans to increase his herd to 150 head.
“My practices are not unique to Denmark. You can see them throughout Europe,” he says. Vestergaard credits Joel Salatin, author, farmer, lecturer, and owner of Polyface Farm in Swope, Virginia, as his inspiration and mentor. “I spent four days on his farm, discussing best farming practices, and learned a lot.
“We worry about the carbon footprint we’re leaving, so we invest in electric cars,” he continues. “But think about the carbon footprint we leave behind when we ship lamb from New Zealand, strawberries from Texas, and beef from Colorado to Ann Arbor. I believe that local, organic farms will do as much—or more—to resolve environmental concerns as driving electric cars will do.”
He is equally passionate about teaching. He regularly invites Michigan State agricultural students and local classrooms to his farm, hoping to inspire young people to consider farming as a profession.
“The average age of the American farmer is sixty. We need to inspire younger generations to farm. But it’s very expensive to purchase land and secure the capital for starting up. Meanwhile, grocery stores sell milk for only a dollar more a gallon than the price in 1965—and the costs of labor, seeds, and feed have risen much, much more. I want to help the younger generations think outside the box and find ways to sustain themselves financially while farming on small pieces of land.”
Not far from his new farm, the Andres Trust is busy restoring the fields that once belonged to Aprill Farm. For generations, they were used to raise corn and soybeans with chemical sprays and fertilizers. Some fields remain fallow, some now grow fruit trees and raspberry bushes, and a thriving you-pick strawberry business will open for the second year this spring.
Scio Township isn’t the only nearby municipality committed to preserving its agricultural and aesthetic heritage. Last fall, Dexter Township passed its first millage for land preservation, and started negotiations for its first major acquisition: the Van Gorder Farm on Island Lake Road, adjacent to West Lake County Preserve.
Webster Township has purchased conservation easements on more than 2,500 acres of property—“I call it The Little Township That Could,” Lonik says. “They’re doing amazing preservation work there.” At the end of January, the township acquired an additional 119 agricultural acres, and in early March, it signed conservation easements for two new parcels, 19 and 30 acres.
“Land preservation is a collective effort by everyone, from farmers and voters, to the county, state, and national preservation programs,” Lonik says.
The farmers who are willing to sign over conservation easements appear to be a different breed, caretakers rather than investment bankers. Like other farmers, they struggle to succeed, often working away from the farm as well as on the farm. These aren’t farmers who regard their land as a retirement investment. Despite the hard work, expensive equipment costs, pricey maintenance, weather concerns, and economic conditions beyond their control, they farm with one eye on the future and the other on the past.
“One day I would like to hire a crew to build the playgrounds so I could spend all my time on the farm business. But that’s in the future,” Vestergaard says. “For now, I am the steward for Ervin Frederick’s farm and for Dick Renz’s farm. I work to preserve their legacy.”
Cynthia Furlong-Reynolds is a journalist whose byline has appeared in more than 50 newspapers and magazines, she has written nine histories, a dozen picture books, a series of early readers based upon a mouse’s adventures (Oliver’s Travels), a young adult novel, countless articles, and dozens of life stories for private individuals. Under the auspices of the Michigan Humanities Council, she regularly leads Prime Time family literacy programs in underprivileged neighborhoods, from the farming community of Hartland to downtown urban sites, among them Detroit, Ypsilanti, Garden City, and Down River.