All photos thanks to Mark Smith
Rex Dobson was the very first farmer in Leelanau to permanently protect his land from development. In 1999, he worked with the newly formed Leelanau Conservancy and the state of Michigan to forever preserve 90 acres of his Bingham Township farm. Named for his dear mother, the historic Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm is now a non-profit community resource, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rex’s family story and his reverence for the land have been well-documented in film and in print (www.rubyellenfarm.com)
This story is about Rex’s younger neighbor and friend, Greg Porritt, who two decades later, has followed suit, protecting his nearby 136 acres with a conservation easement. It is the farm that Greg grew up on with his parents, John and Nancy, and his four sisters. The Porritt farm adds to a corridor of protected lands along Co. Rd. 633. This pastoral landscape takes in the Ruby Ellen and Core Farms, the Stanek Farm and orchards owned by the Gregory family. It also backs up to MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station (see map).
“The fantastically beautiful Porritt farm adds to a highly productive agricultural area,” says Kim Hayes, Director of Farmland Protection. “It also preserves a wooded slope that is part of a critical wildlife corridor and helps to protect the water quality of nearby Lake Leelanau.” The land’s proximity to Traverse City and the views put it at a high risk for development, adds Kim. “Multiple home sites here would have irreparably altered the high conservation values.”
Greg, now 64, was just 11 when he moved into the farmhouse where Ruby Ellen had been born in 1903. That fact alone intertwines the two men’s history; and the ensuing decades further solidified their bond. Rex passed away in 2011, but like all great people, his legacy lives on. Greg says he was hugely influenced by Rex’s example.
Greg’s dad, John, was not a farmer. He had taken a job as a construction manager in Traverse City, but his daughters loved horses and that’s how they ended up with this farm and its beautiful old barn. They purchased the home and 136 acres in 1967. Greg’s dad leased some of the land back to Rex, who continued to grow hay, oats and corn there.
Rex was a lifelong bachelor farmer who lived with his parents. He and Greg first connected along Co. Rd. 633. Rex was hauling a load of hay and recruited Greg on the spot to help him. “I was all of 90 pounds, soaking wet,” says Greg. “I could barely reach the pedals on the tractor.” He recalls delicious fried potato lunches prepared by Ruby Ellen, and how Rex had “an uncanny ability to know just the right time to bale the hay, which can mold if it’s not at the right time.”
Greg is the oldest of five and worked for Rex every summer. After graduating from Suttons Bay High School in 1974, he studied forestry and took a job as a forest technician for a time under the DNR. “I was 12 years old when Dutch elm disease came through in the late 60s,” he says. “That was a big influence on me; it made such an impact visually when all of those diseased trees were logged.”
Greg married his high school sweetheart, Joy LaCross, in 1978 and they had three children. When his parents retired and built a home on nearby Lake Leelanau, Greg and Joy bought his parents’ farmhouse and four acres in 1988. By this time, some of the land had been converted to cherry orchards under leases with first the neighboring Stanek family and later with the Gregory family. Ultimately, in 2017, after his parents died, Greg inherited the farm.
Years earlier, the Porritts had enrolled 80 acres of their land in a Leelanau Conservancy program called FarmAbility. This 10-year program paid farmers annually to keep their land undeveloped, but was not a permanent protection solution. “My parents and I always had an implied understanding that the farm should be protected one day when the time was right,” says Greg.
For Greg, that time is now. His wife, Joy, died suddenly of a heart attack at 58 in 2015. He is disabled after a benign brain tumor impaired his balance, hearing and vision in 2010. Still, he walks this land he loves often. On the day we met for this story, we traversed a beautiful two track flanked by white pine and spruce trees that leads up into the orchard. Greg stopped often to bend down and toss branches aside. He pointed to an old pear tree among spruces that likely sprang from a discarded core. On the other side of the hill, lays Lake Leelanau.
“When Rex protected his farm, it got me and my folks thinking about what could happen here,” says Greg, who turned thoughts into action. Like Rex, his land is now protected with a conservation easement, ensuring that this iconic farm and birthplace of Ruby Ellen will remain undeveloped and available for future generations. Greg’s generous donation of 25% of the fair market value of his land helped to make this project happen.
“I had the pleasure of getting to know Greg’s parents, John and Nancy Porritt, about a dozen years ago,” says Tom Nelson, the Conservancy’s executive director. “It wasn’t hard to see the deep bond they had with their land—a quiet reverence and respect. Clearly they passed that depth of love on to Greg. “It’s also not hard to imagine John, Nancy, Joy and Rex all looking down on Greg with a profound pride for the commitment he’s made to their legacy, to which Greg has now joined in earnest. I can tell you that we at the Conservancy are grateful beyond words.” –Carolyn Faught, Senior Writer; from our Fall 2020 newsletter.