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Make the Local Farm Connection

January 30, 2003 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Patty Cantrell

Just as consumer demand is pulling farmers into new food markets, citizen demand can pull farming back onto local and state government’s economic development agenda.

You can help make the connection whether you are a county commissioner trying to save valuable farmland or a mother looking to buy farm fresh eggs. Getting involved is the way to give local farmers the assistance they need to move out of dead-end commodity markets and into the more promising field of feeding their neighbors and nearby cities.

The first step is to learn what may already be happening in your community. Then start putting the local farm and farmland puzzle together.

What’s Up
Many pieces of the puzzle already are taking shape in Michigan and may well be underway in your community.

Agriculture agencies and researchers, such as Michigan State University Extension, are putting more time into exploring new production methods and consumer markets. Public interest organizations also are breaking ground, such as an effort to develop an agricultural products innovation center. This initiative, led by Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems and Rural Partners of Michigan, aims to provide tools for turning good ideas into profitable ventures.

On the farmland protection side of the puzzle, communities across the state are working to reduce sprawl’s pressure on pastureland, cropland, and orchards.

They are raising money to offer farmers more financial options than the often last-ditch step of selling the family’s land. Communities also are guiding growth into already developed areas both to save farmland and to save taxpayers the cost of building sewer and water systems far and wide. And voters are calling for needed changes in Michigan tax law to assess farmland on its agricultural “use value” rather than its higher commercial and residential value.

Key Piece
Largely missing from the new farm futures movement, however, are the economic development leaders and agencies that still picture agriculture as a large-scale, global-market industry in which most local farmers have little hope of survival. From this traditional standpoint, farming is either the federal government’s responsibility or an economic sector that agencies help people escape by providing manufacturing and retail jobs.

Economic developers in Michigan need to know, however, that many farms are breaking into a brand new territory full of opportunity — that a new age of entrepreneurial agriculture is on the rise.    

Consumer demand is invigorating farm markets, with sales and profits going to those who can switch from the commodity production focus of the past 50 years to a marketing and consumer-product orientation. And as more farmers are able to make a living on their land, their communities benefit from the water quality protection, beautiful landscapes, fresh food, and rural lifestyle that active farms can provide.

We Can Help
Citizens and local government officials can paint a new farm picture for the agencies that serve them. They can introduce economic developers to new farms and new food markets. And they can ask agriculture organizations and business groups to meet and learn how they can work together to capitalize on emerging opportunities. The new entrepreneurial agriculture can become a local development priority when officials see its economic and farmland protection potential.

The Michigan Land Use Institute can help. MLUI works to build citizen support for policy that protects the environment, strengthens the economy, and enhances quality of life. Patty Cantrell leads MLUI’s project to promote alternatives that increase profits and choices for Michigan’s family farmers and their communities. Contact her at 231-882-4723 ext. 14 or patty@mlui.org. You can learn more about MLUI and become a supporting member at www.mlui.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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