Agriculture Industry Still Matters

In the middle of the "reinvention of Michigan," we have had the harshest of reminders that agriculture still matters. It always has, since the earliest days when Native Americans traded crops and food for tools and other goods. We have been reminded also that being the "Cherry Capital of the World" carries a risk along with its benefits.

Cherries and apples don't just mean festivals, farm markets, and bragging rights. They mean jobs. Not just for farmers, but for most of us, including farm workers, fruit processors, container companies, tool and implement companies, truckers, bankers, and even teachers.

Yes, teachers. Each year children of migrant workers are in local school districts when the state counts heads and calculates the funding each district will receive. Just 100 kids multiplied by approximately $7000 in per pupil funding would equal $700,000 of lost revenue to local schools.

As high-yield vineyards and hop fields pop up across Grand Traverse, Benzie, Antrim, and Leelanau counties, we almost fool ourselves that we don't need that little red fruit anymore. We ignore the fact that the majority of northwest Michigan's fruit crop is still cherries and that each summer those 200 million pounds of tart cherries continue to drive a significant portion of our economy.

There is relief for some farmers and processors, but for many it will be a knuckle-biter year with hopes for a good harvest in 2013 and an unrelenting quest for new products and markets in 2012.

Remember the saying, "If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger"? For manufacturers and auto suppliers who survived the last decade, that adage rang true. They are leaner, more diverse, and competing in global markets. Northern Michigan's fruit economy surely will be back soon and made even stronger by this experience. The industry is already looking at diversification of crops, long-term sustainability of cherries in a global climate context, and new processes to add value to crops relatively new to the area.

We can help them. We can support legislation that cushions the effects of this year's crop damage. We can buy local food and value-added products, even if sometimes they cost a little more. We can insist that Michigan State University's Extension maintain its research stations in northern Michigan. And we can support local food banks and charities like the Father Fred, United Way, Goodwill Industries, and others that will lend a hand, especially this winter. Please give and give generously if you are able.

This year's crop loss was not a farmer issue. It was a Michigan issue. It was my issue and it is our issue. We must all do everything in our power to help overcome it and to come back even stronger. The state of Michigan has shown resiliency numerous times in its history. Now is our region's chance to make some history of its own.

Doug Luciani is president and CEO of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce.