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New Leelanau Extension Director Has ‘Perfect Job’

Sirrine says profitability is local farmers’ biggest challenge

August 30, 2007 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Dr. Rob Sirrine’s new post with MSU Extension in Leelanau County brings him back to the region where he grew up.

One doesn’t have to spend much time with Dr. Rob Sirrine, Leelanau County’s new Michigan State University Extension Educator, to find that his enthusiasm for regional agriculture is contagious. Whether he’s talking about fresh food in school cafeterias, the area’s burgeoning wine industry, or the diversity of agriculture in Michigan, it’s evident that he brings both knowledge of and a passion for Leelanau County agriculture to his new position.

He also brings his wife Dorothy and his two young sons, Wyatt and Whelan, to Leelanau; their new home is in Elmwood Township.

In my recent Great Lakes News Bulletin Service interview with Dr. Sirrine, he said that he is happy to be settling back into the region where he grew up. In addition to being closer to his Traverse City family, he looks forward to exposing his sons to northern Michigan winters, and being part of what he describes as "an exciting time in agriculture."

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: You didn’t grow up on a farm. What brought you to agriculture?

Dr. Sirrine: Well, when I was 14, I started working in cherry orchards. Basically, my parents said, "You will have a summer job." So a family friend, Denny Hoxsie, had a cherry farm out in Acme and I went to work for him. From then I worked on Old Mission Peninsula every summer, doing different jobs, pulling tarps, driving trucks, and driving the catching frame.

GLBNS: A lot of people walk away from agriculture after those jobs. Why didn’t you?

Dr. Sirrine: At first it’s hard, but you make as much in one month as your friends do all summer. It’s great being outside, it’s exciting, taking cherries in and seeing what score you have, and being with all the farmers there. The production mentality is exciting.

GLBNS: After your undergrad work at the University of Michigan, you moved to the West Coast. What drew you there?

Dr. Sirrine: I was looking around for graduate programs. UC Santa Cruz had a specific program in agro-ecology. It was one of the best in the country and also one of the only ones in the country. If you’ve ever been to Santa Cruz, you know why I went there: It’s just gorgeous. In fact, it kind of reminds me of here, with the water. Growing up near water, you just get used to having it around.

We were there for eight years; that’s were I met my wife. She is in the same Ph.D. program. I always wanted to come back here; it’s just so darn expensive out there. It’s nice to be back.

I was fortunate enough to come back here and do my Ph.D. research for the summer. For that I looked at agro-ecological and social issues in tart cherry production in this area.

GLBNS: You studied in Africa too. How did your travels there further inform your beliefs about or passion for agriculture?

Dr. Sirrine: My wife did her doctoral research in Malawi working on food security and soil quality. Her work solidified my belief that success in agriculture is about more than just agronomy, much more than just how much nitrogen is needed to produce a healthy crop. You have to understand that the†diversity of landscapes and socioeconomic and cultural issues impact the success of agricultural systems. In Malawi, for example, gender played a role in the success of the intercropping system we were working with. So, it is important to take an interdisciplinary approach when working with farmers because it is really easy to overlook a crucial driving factor.

GLBNS: What differences do you see between the agricultural mentality in the Midwest verses the West Coast?

Dr. Sirrine: Actually, there are a lot of similarities in the diversity of agricultural products produced. Michigan is number two as a state and California is number one. There are of course seasonal differences. There is year-round production out there, and we have a shorter growing season here.

There are a lot of cool things going on here in northern Michigan that weren’t going on when I left 10 years ago. Now you’ve got your community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, farms to schools programs, nonprofits working for local foods, and of course there’s the wineries. The wineries and orchard crops are another similarity between here and California as well.

GLBNS: What do you see as the greatest threat to agriculture in Leelanau County?

Dr. Sirrine: Profitability is a big one. We really have to help support the farmers in the area to be profitable. A lot of them are doing okay on their own, but then you have some that have worked all of their life and need to sell their land to retire comfortably, but they may not want to do that. It all depends on the grower.

Another threat is land costs. If you’re paying $10,000 an acre for a farm, as a beginning farmer, that’s tough to get into. Or if you’re looking to get into cherry production, when you calculate the initial investment for things like cherry harvesters, you’re looking at well over $100,000. It’s almost impossible.

GLBNS: What do you see as your role as an Extension educator in addressing these challenges?

Dr. Sirrine: In Extension, we want to develop educational programs to benefit as many people as possible. In the past, Jim Bardenhagen did workshops for tax season preparation, tractor safety courses, and programs that are really relevant to the day-to-day operations on a farm. That’s probably because he was a farmer himself. I will definitely be working closely with him and other growers in the area.

GLBNS: Do you think it’s safe to say you have some pretty big shoes to fill here in Leelanau County?

Dr. Sirrine: Absolutely, I think Jim held this position for 25 years and he was a workaholic. They are some big shoes to fill, but luckily, he’s a good resource too. So I’ll definitely be calling him, and other community and farm leaders in the area.

GLBNS: Do you have any ambitions yourself to farm?

Dr. Sirrine: Oh yeah, I would love to have a farm. My wife and I talk about it a lot. I love the idea of farming. Things are changing all the time and there is so much to do. We’ve talked about brewing hard cider for a few years now.

GLBNS: A lot of Leelanau County growers are getting older and making decisions about their land and their retirement. What role will MSU Extension have in working to see farmland stay in active agriculture verses development?

Dr. Sirrine: Yes, intergenerational farm transfer is a big one. I would like to develop programs that cover what the options are out there for farmers who want to retire comfortably, but see their land passed on and remain in farming. For some farmers, their land is their retirement. There’s not a one quick fix for any of these issues. We just need to see what the needs are and try to develop programs that will allow those that want to pass their land on to do so.

GLBNS: Now, you’re younger yourself than most Leelanau County farmers. Do you see a lot of interest from younger people that want to get involved in farming?

Dr. Sirrine: need groups like the Michigan Land Use Institute to get people who want to farm connected. I am also interested in forming a young farmers group to discuss issues and facilitate successful farming operations.

GLBNS: Spanish is a preferred skill set for Extension educators. Do you speak it?

Dr. Sirrine: Yes, I have conversational Spanish speaking skills, although I wouldn’t say I am fluent. I think Spanish is very important. It gives us a unique opportunity to speak with the growers, and the farmers that have worked their way up, are running the farm, and speak Spanish. I think it will help us reach a broader audience.

GLBNS: Last November Leelanau, county voters soundly defeated a ballot initiative for purchase of development rights program to preserve farmland. What do you think that says about the status of agriculture in the county? What types of non-PDR-type programs for preserving farmland here are viable?

Dr. Sirrine: You know that was a pretty interesting and contentious case. I think paying for it is the key. If there were a different structure to pay for a farmer to preserve his land in perpetuity, maybe it would have turned out differently.

You can’t blame people. The way it came out is the way it came out. I think part of our job will be working with farmers that want to preserve their land and researching different ways to go about doing that.

GLBNS: What are the most pronounced changes in agriculture that you have seen since your time working as a teenager on cherry farms?

Dr. Sirrine: There are a lot of exciting opportunities right now in niche marketing and value-added agriculture. If you look at Black Star Farms, for example, they are marketing themselves as an agricultural destination. Not only are they doing value-added products, they’re doing consumer value-added experiences so that consumers can leave with an experience and go tell their neighbor, "Wow we had a great time tasting wine, horseback riding, and there was a petting zoo."

Now, not everyone will want to do this. There won’t be 100 Black Star Farms up here, so we need to support the production agriculture farmers as well.

GLBNS: What else would you like Leelanau County residents to know about you and your new position?

Dr. Sirrine: Well, I just want people to know that we have an open door here. Right now I’m out trying to introduce myself to people and build relationships. Please don’t hesitate to call or stop by. Also, we have such an outstanding staff in place already developing nationally recognized programs. I’m just excited. It’s the perfect job.

Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. Reach her at julie@mlui.org.

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