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Growing Entrepreneurs

Communities foster innovative farm and food businesses

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffen
As Wayne Kyle shifts his farm in Holland from traditional to organic blueberries, its yield—and his profits—are growing.

Wayne Kyle, owner of Blueberry Heritage Farms in Holland, is one of those third-generation farmers who know how to keep a good thing going: He’s willing to learn, adapt, and invest.

Five years ago, for example, Mr. Kyle started converting some of his 200 acres of blueberries to organic. He saw both his sales and his production grow.

“I’m seeing a big difference in the organic fields versus my traditional fields,” he said. “The overall health of the soil, and the quality and productivity of the bushes is better.”

Mr. Kyle is also one of those medium-scale farmers—he grows about 1 million pounds of blueberries each year—who sees a lot of good in re-localizing agriculture, both for his business, which is gaining direct sales to regional supermarkets, and for his community.

“The local food concept is a doable concept, and it’s gaining steam,” he said. “A small family farm can survive in that arena.”

Clearly, Mr. Kyle understands the power of local food. The question for Michigan is whether it is willing to learn, adapt, and invest in the kind of thing Mr. Kyle is succeeding at: Going local as a way to diversify and strengthen our agricultural economy and, by extension, the whole state’s economy.

If so, then Michigan must focus on the needs and potential of three key groups:

  • Established farm operators interested in trying new markets.
  • Beginning farmers, who are full of creativity and commitment but rarely have land, equipment, or a background in farming.
  • Young people interested in being the next generation of local food eaters and growers.

Here are some proven ways to help out these groups:

Patty Cantrell
“There is a niche in society now for people to produce healthy local food, and I know that’s where I am supposed to fit in,” says Ben Gluck, an undergraduate student of horticulture at Michigan State University. He spends much of his time at the university’s Student Organic Farm, which features a nationally prominent one-year certificate program that prepares people for the real local-food world. It starts in January with the farm’s year-round production of food in unheated, passive solar greenhouses. It continues through every step of an organic farming business—from crop planning and soil fertility building to harvesting and marketing.

Business assistance and networks
“Farming 101” classes now taking place across the state provide a great start for ever more people from diverse backgrounds—suburban, second-career, immigrant—who want to try their hand at growing and marketing food.

Such courses are particularly effective when they offer some kind of ongoing support, such as farm business networks that allow peers to ask questions, share ideas, and even collaborate.

Several states have programs to help farms diversify, such as shifting from growing large-scale commodities to selling local foods. They include incentives, such as one-on-one grant-writing assistance and 50 percent cost sharing to get a plan going. Massachusetts is the leader: It offers grants of up to $100,000 in exchange for five- and 10-year covenants on a farm’s land.

Michigan once had grants available through its Julian-Stille Value-Added Agricultural Development Fund. The Michigan Food Policy Council issued recommendations in 2006 that called for reviving the fund and other strategies for addressing Michigan’s healthy food and agricultural business needs. More at www.michigan.gov/mfpc.

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