Big Business for Michigan: Key developments will help ag sector thrive

Ahhh, summer. The glorious 97 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day that refresh our cold, winter souls and remind us that there is hope, the world is beautiful and people are good. And then, suddenly, they arrive. Yes, the downstate friends, the long lost relatives, that high school buddy who recently friended you on Facebook…”Oh, you live in Traverse City…we’ve always wanted to visit…maybe we could connect…” You know the drill. Happens. Every. Year. And it is never more evident than during the 4th of July and the National Cherry Festival.

Brace yourself Traverse City: 800,000 of our closest friends are about to drop by for a visit.
We’ve heard that it’s our small town charm and foodie culture that is the draw. Just read any one of the 22 lists we’ve topped in the last 12 months for validation. But Michigan, and the Traverse City area’s quiet, hard-working champion, remains our agriculture industry.
Let’s review Michigan’s Agricultural Statistics:

• Michigan produces more than 300 commodities, making us the 2nd most diverse agricultural state in the nation. (California ranks first)

• In 2014, Michigan boasted just over 51,600 farms, the average farm is 191 acres. Total farmland is 9.95 million acres. 95 percent of our farms are family/family partnership operated.

• The food and agriculture industry contributes $101.2 billion annually to the state’s economy

• 22 percent of Michigan’s workforce, 923,000 residents, are employed by agriculture, food processors or related industries.

• Michigan ranks 3rd in the nation for the number of farmers markets.

• Michigan is home to 119 wineries and over 200 micro-breweries.

• Michigan ranks number one nationally in the production of: tart cherries, blueberries, pickling cucumbers, squash, low fat ice cream mix, Easter lilies, geraniums, dry black and cranberry beans, impatiens and begonias.

• Michigan exports about one-third of its agricultural commodities each year, generating nearly $3.2 billion.

• Almost 60 percent of all Michigan’s agricultural exports go directly to Canada, our No. 1 export market.

• Countries eager for Michigan-grown products include Mexico, Japan, China, and South Korea.

Sources: Farm Bureau, Michigan Dept. of Agriculture, USDA

Agriculture is big business for Michigan. A few key developments will help this growing business sector continue to thrive:

  • The passing of the 2014 Farm Bill.  This bill, championed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, allowed tart cherries to be covered under crop insurance for the first time ever.  According to Ben LaCross of Leelanau Fruit Co., “That is a risk management tool cherry farmers have been requesting for decades. It allows us to operate our businesses with a sense of security and confidence that other crops have had for a long time.”
  • Progress on the construction of the Detroit River International Crossings, recently renamed the Gordie Howe International Bridge. This infrastructure is critical to Michigan’s economy. Canada is our number one trade partner. Not just Michigan’s, the United States. The aging Ambassador Bridge cannot keep pace with the demands of industry. There are already extended wait times which leads to added transportation costs. If the Ambassador Bridge suffered an extended shut down, it could cripple the agriculture industry. The selection process for the Bridge partner is underway with the ambitious completion date of 2020. It will have a significant economic impact on our state and cannot come soon enough.

As if Mother Nature didn’t provide enough of her own challenges to the ag industry, there are key issues looming. As a state, we have identified that the skilled trades are challenged to replace its aging workforce. The average age of a Michigan farmer is 58 years old. Add in farmers and family property owners under great temptation and taxation duress to sell. High-end housing and condominium developments are considered by taxing jurisdictions – as well as many developers – to be the “highest and best use” for these sites and they are taxed accordingly. Growth in cities and adding to existing developments helps to ensure we preserve our resources and farmlands. Fortunately, areas have been set aside either through the land conservancies or through farmland preservation initiatives such as what exists on Old Mission Peninsula. This is our proverbial “golden goose” we’ve managed not to kill so far, and we must be diligent to continue this discipline and stewardship.
If we want to maintain the farms, our natural resources, the industry, and the next generation, we must ensure that as a community we engage in thoughtful dialogue that addresses transportation, housing options and yes, nine-story buildings. The conversation must go beyond our personal likes and dislikes and serve the greater good.

Bonnie Alfonso is president of Alfie Logo Gear in Traverse City.  She serves as Vice Chair of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and is the Immediate Past Chair of the Small Business Association of Michigan.