For years, Cedar businessman Walter Jedena had long admired the Fleese Farm on the corner of French and Hohnke Roads. He had driven by it many times, always intrigued by the “bucolic” property: its expansive fields, beautiful barn, the house with long johns waving in the breeze off the front porch, the weathered siding. “What’s the story?” he wondered.
One day his assistant arrived at Walter’s Cedar compound and said that a for-sale sign had popped up near the house. It was 1998. Walter jumped in his truck and drove out to the farm. He called the agent listed on the sign, and put a purchase agreement into motion. The 80-acre property was his within a number of weeks.
The former owner, bachelor Raymond Fleese, was in a nursing home and the farmhouse had sat empty for years. Walter says that when he was finally able to get inside “It was if the family had just walked out; there were still egg shells in the kitchen sink.” After taking ownership, Walter cleaned out the house, held an auction, selling off tractors and other equipment. “I had no real plans but felt it was a wonderful property worth investing in,” he says.
In February, Walter protected the land with a conservation easement which removes the development rights from the property. He was compensated for his actions through a federal conservation easement funding program called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which funded 50% of the project costs. The Leelanau Conservancy’s farmland protection donors covered 25% of the cost and Walter donated 25% in a bargain sale.
Walter Jedena, 80, is not a farmer. In fact, he has made his living as an investor and developer; building quality homes and apartments in Traverse City. Walter also bought and refurbished the property once known as the Red Lion Motor Lodge near Suttons Bay and owned it for 30 years (now the M-22 Inn). But with each and every project he has taken on, Walter says “the highest and best use of each property is always at the forefront of my thinking.”
For the next two decades, Walter leased the land to neighboring farmers who grew hay and corn. “Vineyards were starting to come in and I thought the land might be good for grapes or hops,” says Walter, noting its location is along the Leelanau Wine Trail. In the meantime, three farm families nearby protected their land with conservation easements (Kelenske, Kuhn and Hohnke). Walter began exploring the possibility of protecting his land in 2016.
Walter was born in Romania and spent part of his childhood in an Austrian camp for displaced persons during World War II. His family immigrated to Detroit when he was 10. Walter graduated from the University of Detroit with a degree in Germanic languages, and worked for Xerox, Allstate Insurance and Chrysler. “None of those jobs captured my heart and I wanted to make my mark up here,” he says. He had taken a trip to Lake Michigan and was hooked.
“I decided it was time to pack my belongings,” he adds. Walter was 29. His father helped him to buy his first bay front lot near Elk Rapids. He built a home by himself, “learning by doing,” says Walter. Eventually his parents and other family members followed him to Leelanau.
Walter is continually on the lookout for good investment opportunities, but is always guided by his “highest and best use” philosophy. “Even though I am a developer, I’m sympathetic to not using every parcel of ground to make homes,” says Walter. “I wish for the land to be used to its greatest potential. The Fleese farm had good fertile land. You could put houses on it and make a few bucks. But the value of farmland is that it is there in perpetuity. My reason for conserving it is because 50 years from now, are we going to need more lots for houses or are we going to need land to grow crops on? I think the latter.” The protected farmland contains prime, unique and locally important agricultural soils, and the ecological features include six acres of non-forested wetlands.
Walter worked with Kim Hayes to navigate the detailed, lengthy process. “Working with the Leelanau Conservancy was a very fine experience,” says Walter. “Kim worked really hard, was very honest and forthright, and built my trust.”
”I enjoyed helping Walter permanently protect the Fleese Farm, and truly came to understand and respect his solid dedication to do so,” says Kim. “This is a great project keeping agricultural land in the heart of Leelanau County, and with an easement designed to best serve the needs of farming into the future.“