What's Happening to Agriculture in Northern Michigan?
Amid dire trends, some bright spots emerge
September 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Growers from Manistee to Charlevoix this year completed another cycle of preparation, cultivation, and harvest that has been the mainstay of land and communities in northwest Michigan for more than a century.
But now distorted economic forces are threatening the fortunate union of climate, geography, and human ingenuity that has made the Lake Michigan coast one of the best fruit-growing regions in the world.
Persistent surpluses, encouraged by state and federal farm policies, keep commodity prices low. Increasing globalization of agricultural trade also exerts downward pressure on prices, said Larry Hamm, chairman of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University. The result is that the income farmers receive for fruit, vegetables, grain, milk, and meat are not rising as fast as expenses.
In Manistee County, for example, state figures show that in 1994 total income for all farmers was $17.2 million, a 3.6% increase from 1990. But farm expenses in 1994 totaled $12.9 million, a 12% increase from 1990.
Meanwhile, as the region's population grows and its non-farm economy expands, land values are soaring. One-acre home sites on scenic ridges, which also happen to be the best places for orchards, are selling for $15,000 to $30,000. "You know, some farmers, the only thing that keeps them in business is waiting to sell," said Chris Hubbell, who owns Williamsburg Receiving and Storage, a cherry and apple processing station in Whitewater Township. "Developers love that. They know if they offer enough money, they own it."
The consequences of this trend for northwest Michigan are dramatic. In a 1996 survey conducted by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, Acme Township farmers said just four of the previous ten years had been profitable. And not one farmer interviewed said they would encourage a younger member of their family to take up farming.
Between 1982 and 1992, the last year for accurate figures, the number of acres of land in farms in six northwest Michigan counties -- Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Manistee -- dropped from 302,942 to 267,228, a 12% decline. The number of farms in the region dropped 15%, from 1,749 to 1,481.
Earlier this year, on the basis of statistics from a federal land resources inventory database, the American Farmland Trust reported that at least 1,000 acres of crop and orchard land in northwest Michigan have been lost to suburban sprawl since 1992. The group also named the northwest Michigan fruit belt one of the 20 most threatened agriculture areas in the nation.
Although there is plenty to be discouraged about, some observers say that what may be most remarkable under current conditions is not the number of farmers going out of business, but how many families are still farming.
The idea of tilling the soil and raising food has a powerful allure. "Most farmers have a strong sense of the value to themselves, their families, and their communities of being able to make a living on the farm," said Jim Nugent, district horticulturist for the Michigan State University Extension office in Leelanau County. "And most would like to see that continue."
As evidence of their resiliency, growers are becoming more savvy about targeting a market niche:
• Some are producing "value-added" products under their own family label, as the Smeltzer Orchard Co. in Benzie County is doing with dried cherries, regular and chocolate covered.
• Another encouraging approach catching on in northwest Michigan is called Community Supported Agriculture. Small farmers like Jim Sluyter and Jo Meller of Manistee County's Five Springs Farm grow organic vegetables, herbs, and flowers under contract with local families and restaurants. The subscribers effectively become shareholders in the harvest -- their "dividends" are shopping bags full of produce picked up each week during the growing season.
"Nobody wants to develop their land for anything but farming," said Dieter Amos, a 36-year-old cherry and apple grower in Grand Traverse County's Whitewater Township. "There isn't a farmer I know who wants to go out of business. We're kind of stubborn about it."