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Dick Posthumus Thinks Small Farms Are Dead in Michigan?

He’s wrong

October 20, 2002 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Patty Cantrell/MLUI
  The challenge to Dick Posthumus and Jennifer Granholm is to recognize the entrepreneurial spirit of small farmers like Laura and Frank Jones, chicken producers in Durand, Michigan.
News Analysis

Dick Posthumus, the Republican candidate for governor, startled more than Michigan’s farm community last month when he unveiled his economic plan and then candidly declared that small farms have no future in Michigan. “The fact is they won’t exist in the future,” said Mr. Posthumus, who owns a farm near Grand Rapids, “and they don’t exist today.”


Addressing a media gathering in Lansing on September 26, Mr. Posthumus prefaced his small-farm death knell with a pitch for the type of agriculture he does support: Large-scale industrial farms.


Mr. Posthumus, the lieutenant governor, has repeatedly called for voluntary, incentive-driven environmental guidelines for livestock factory operations, which handle more toxic manure waste than many heavily regulated municipal sewage systems. Growing Michigan’s agricultural economy, he said, “means having environmental regulations that will allow for the concentrated livestock operations that need to operate. That is the difference that many of the environmental advisors to my opponent don’t understand. That’s what’s happening in agriculture.”


In her four years of work as Michigan Attorney General, Democratic candidate for governor Jennifer Granholm made environmental enforcement a high priority, particularly by prosecuting cases that the state’s Department of Environmental Quality would not pursue under Governor John Engler’s administration.


Ms. Granholm did not respond to requests for comment on this article. In previous agricultural policy statements, however, Ms. Granholm has said she will support programs for marketing farm products to local consumers, encourage state agencies to purchase Michigan agricultural offerings, and work to protect farmland from sprawl.


A Political Risk

In apparently nailing a “Keep Out” sign for small farmers on the door of his potential administration, Mr. Posthumus risks eroding his support in Michigan’s farm community.


Mr. Posthumus’ campaign spokesman, Sage Eastman, explains: “Agriculture has changed. If agriculture is going to continue on a large scale in Michigan we have to recognize those changes and work to keep that land in agriculture with a tax and regulatory structure that keeps them in business.”


Smaller family farmers will continue to exist primarily by leasing their land to large operators or producing under contract with major companies, Mr. Eastman says.


Mr. Posthumus’ conviction is understandable given the plain numbers. Less than 3 percent of the state’s 52,000 farms accounted for roughly half of Michigan’s $3.5 billion in farm gate sales, according to the last statewide count in 1997. Nationally, more than a third of all food production comes from farmers who contract with large, distant companies and who often have as much say in the operation as a kid working a McDonalds’ drive-up window.


Mr. Posthumus does aim to help farmers of all sizes if he becomes governor by pushing for a change in tax laws, Mr. Eastman says. The change would base farmers’ property taxes on the lower agricultural value of their land instead of the higher development value. Such relief, he adds, also would come with a provision to make sure land speculators do not cash in unfairly on the farmland tax break, a missing piece that sunk a similar legislative effort three years ago.


Michigan Lagging

Mr. Posthumus’ small-farm view, though based in agricultural reality, still seems shortsighted to both his critics and supporters in the farm community. By warning the vast majority of the state’s farmers they have little chance of working for themselves, the Republican nominee overlooks the fact that many farm families are beginning to find new, more profitable and satisfying ways of reaching consumers than simply leasing their land and labor or selling their raw products to larger companies that end up making all the money.


Leaders in other states understand the importance of increasing the numbers of successful farmers, not just the success of a few. They are doing much more than Michigan is to help independent farmers make a living and stay on their land by capitalizing on new sales opportunities.


Minnesota, for example, spurred the creation of some 250 farm-to-consumer meat businesses since 1999 by helping small-scale processors serve the growing market for locally produced beef, lamb, and pork.


Massachusetts added an average $19,000 profit to the bottom lines of approximately 139 family farms, or 2 percent of the state’s total, in the last three years through its Farm Viability Enhancement Program. Massachusetts also protected 26,568 acres of agricultural land at a cost of only $266 per acre as a result of this program, which helps family farms develop and invest in diversification plans.


Without appreciating this entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Posthumus risks missing out on opportunities to make a big difference in Michigan’s rural communities by giving a little business assistance to its smallest farmers.


Small Farm Promise

Why is that important to Michigan’s economy and quality of life? Because the state’s small farms still hold the integrity of Michigan’s rural communities and environmental quality on their shoulders. Fully 85 percent of Michigan’s farms gross less than $100,000 per year. These families also own nearly half of the state’s farmland, which is invaluable for soaking up storm water and for supporting cities by buffering sprawl.


The new business outlook of many of Michigan’s innovative small farmers is precisely what Mr. Posthumus, who describes himself as a free-market conservative, should champion.


Theirs is the story of how free-market forces spur the innovation and risk taking that keeps economies evolving. And it is a story of agricultural enterprise that Michigan’s small farmers now are writing with the barest government support.


Where Do We Fit?

“Both the candidates are saying agriculture is important; that it’s the second-largest industry in the state. But are they talking about us?”


Laura Jones, a small farmer from Durand, west of Flint, asks this question on a bright fall day as chickens in movable, outdoor pens soak up the Blue Jay-blue skies and peck the ground for bugs and worms. “We don’t produce a commodity. We’re not a large turkey processing facility. Where do we fit in?”


Laura and husband Frank Jones exemplify the new entrepreneurial agriculture now spreading across the state and nation as small farms capitalize on changes in consumer demand. Organic poultry that the Jones’ pasture on their 10-acre farm, for example, sells as fast as they can get the fryers to market.


The potential for them and many others to make a good family living raising and selling pastured poultry is vast, according to an Idaho Department of Agriculture survey of consumer interest in pastured poultry eggs and meat. In Michigan, that consumer interest translates into potential retail sales of as much as $600 million per year of chicken and turkey, and nearly $200 million in eggs.


Pastured poultry farmers like the Jones’ are hampered, however, in their ability to even scrape the surface of that potential market because small-scale poultry processing plants do not exist in Michigan. Larger facilities that might take the chickens are often too far away, too busy, or not interested in serving smaller operators.


That’s why the Jones’ have for two years been putting all their extra money and time into researching, designing, and now building a small-scale poultry processing facility on their farm. Their maximum capacity of 150 birds per day is miniscule compared to industry standards, but small farmer demand for such a facility is great, according to John Durling, sustainable farming specialist at Michigan State University.


Mr. Durling has been working through the nonprofit Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems to help pastured poultry producers navigate a muddy maze of processing regulations. “I haven’t seen a farmer that’s not interested in what’s happening there,” he says.


Sales Potential

They’re interested because the Jones’ small-scale plant can help them dramatically increase their sales and profit margins by cutting costs, saving time, and expanding markets. Without access to small-scale processing, pastured poultry producers must keep their production below 1,000 birds per year, the maximum that the United States Department of Agriculture allows farmers to process themselves.


Expanding beyond the 1,000-bird limit requires using a facility that is compliant with more comprehensive USDA regulations. Processing at such a facility also allows farmers to start selling poultry into wholesale and retail markets rather than only to neighbors and farmers markets. In addition, access to small-scale processing allows farmers to re-invest the time they would spend butchering and cleaning poultry into running their farms and marketing the meat, which is key to their bottom-line success.


The Jones’ facility will help bridge the gap between small farmers and big market demand for high-quality, locally produced poultry. That demand continues to grow as news of food safety problems with industrial, mass-market meat processing worries consumers.


Last week, for example, the nation’s second largest poultry processor, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, recalled 27.4 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken products after the deaths of at least seven people in the Northeast from an outbreak of the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. It was the largest meat recall in U.S. history, and it came just three months after another major meat contamination incident in which the ConAgra Beef Company recalled 19 million pounds of meat sold across the country.


Policy Opportunities

The challenge to state leaders is to recognize the entrepreneurial spirit of small farmers and keep their job-creating, family-supporting fire lit.


In the Jones’ case, something as simple as helping other small-scale poultry processors learn from their regulatory journey could lead to more small poultry processing facilities and, therefore, more market access for farmers across the state.


“We need to figure out a way for them to be able to share that experience without it taking so much of their time that they can’t get their work done,” says MSU’s Mr. Durling of the many requests the Jones’ receive for tours and presentations.


Another way to promote small farms is to establish regulatory requirements that fit. The Jones’ and others are not asking for voluntary, incentive-driven regulations like those Mr. Posthumus is promoting for livestock factories. “We want to be legal, and we want to work within the system,” Laura Jones says.


But rules and regulatory procedures designed for very large businesses — requiring break rooms for inspectors and employees, for example — do not match the reality of small-scale farming and can block the way to market with unnecessary costs.


 “We have to scale it down. Keep it clean, clean, clean, but scale it down,” Laura Jones says.



Patty Cantrell, an economist and journalist, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s New Entrepreneurial Agriculture program. Reach her at patty@mlui.org. For more of her terrific reporting  and commentary on farmland conservation, agricultural economics, and policy, see the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Web site at www.mlui.org

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