As a fifth-generation farmer and Old Mission Peninsula resident, I am deeply concerned by the lawsuit brought by the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula (WOMP) against our township government, and by extension, the residents of our community. While I share the concerns of the 80 percent of residents who are opposed to increased traffic, density, noise, and commercialization in our bedroom and farming community, my comments on this issue will relate to my experience as a farmer in Peninsula Township.
Wunsch Farms manages just over 1,000 acres of farmland in Peninsula Township, with orchards ranging from Wilson Road to Mission Point Lighthouse. For context, this is essentially the same acreage as all our Old Mission Peninsula vineyards combined have in production. Doing right by our neighbors is not an afterthought for our farm, but a core part of our operating philosophy.
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We dispatch tractors at 4 a.m. and ship our fruit at midnight to mitigate traffic issues. When we build new structures, we seek to protect rather than obstruct the viewshed. We are proud to grow the crops that we pack and market locally on our own farms. For decades, we have sought to lead on environmental stewardship and conservation programs to ensure that our farmland is fruitful and safe for generations to come.
I have friends in the local wine industry, but I must disagree with the characterization by WOMP’s advocates and lawyers: we are not a failing or declining business, and a commercialized wine entertainment sector is not the only path forward for OMP’s agricultural land.
In the last five years, three millennial members of our family farm have purchased farms of their own on the Old Mission Peninsula, and our farm has grown from humble beginnings to manage as much farmland as the entire local wine industry combined. In the past five years, we have purchased new farms that could have been developed into five additional wineries or 60 residences, and we have planted hundreds of acres of new orchards.
Our cherry and apple farm is by no means exceptional in the township – we have neighbors who manage farms of roughly the same size as our own, as well as a neighbor whose cutting-edge approach to growing highly productive, high-quality Honeycrisp apples has quietly made his farm a mandatory stopping point for the world’s largest apple growers and global consortia of horticulture researchers.
In fact, because of the township’s Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program and the efforts of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, residential development will not be a major threat to the viability of low-impact agriculture in Peninsula Township, provided that we continue the PDR program.
What does threaten our ability to continue protecting scenic farmland in the township is a policy environment in which bars, restaurants, hotels, and wedding venues can masquerade as agricultural businesses without even pretending to manage the ag-zoned land that they build on.
This is what the WOMP lawsuit seeks to do and has been perplexing for our family farm. How can we maintain viability if we must compete with commercial restaurant/hotel/bar/wedding complexes that would be allowed on each five-acre parcel? Will we need to build hotels and restaurants to keep farming?
The WOMP lawsuit seeks to create a lopsided playing field between wineries that say they cannot profitably manage their farms within their clearly defined bundle of use rights and low-impact agricultural producers who must compete for the scarce farmland available in the township without these newly imagined property rights.
As farmers, when market conditions for a crop are not profitable, we plant new crops, improve our operational efficiencies, or add value within the confines of the zoning ordinance. What we don’t do is try to change local land use rules to create new use rights and new commercial activities that fly in the face of agricultural zoning and the goodwill of our residential neighbors.
The zoning ordinance as it is written provides ample opportunity for farms and wineries to produce crops and add value to those crops through on-farm processing and limited on-site distribution channels, and the lawsuit and related push for increased commercialization are unnecessary and punitive to those of us who seek to operate farm businesses while maintaining a pleasant peninsula.
An expansion of winery use rights to include weddings, hotels, events, full-service restaurants, and bar service is a slap in the face to Peninsula Township residents who have invested millions of tax dollars into the PDR program and will cause measurable harm to farmers who are not interested in cashing in on wine entertainment.