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Why Don't We Work With Farmers

Economic agency finds new agriculture answers

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

Brian Confer
  A group of giggling children is one of many signs of success for an innovative farming venture in northern Michigan’s Emmet County. Seven farms joined together during the 2001 season to grow food for 150 families in a “community supported agriculture” project coordinated by the Wagbo Peace Center, a small farm and land trust. The families buy shares of the seven farms’ products during the win-ter — when farmers need the cash — and then pick up the sweet corn, flowers, milk, fresh fish, and vegetables on a weekly basis during the season. They also join in the fun of farming.

The rolling hills of Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties at the tip of Michigan’s mitt are covered with small dairy and fruit farms and with tightknit rural communities that farm families built. This picture of what the three-county area is all about hit Tom Johnson, executive director of the regional economic development corporation, like a rock one day two years ago as he drove down one of the area’s many quiet country roads.
Mr. Johnson says: “I asked myself, ‘Does agriculture generate money in the regional economy? Certainly. Is it part of the economic base? Certainly.’” Then, he says, he had to ask himself why his organization, the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, didn’t work with agriculture.

Aha! Moment
The answer revealed a tall wall that has built up over the years with farmers, farm organizations, and agriculture agencies on one side and business leaders, economic development groups, and departments of commerce on the other. “If you leave farming out, then you have a blank spot there,” says Mr. Johnson, who decided to break down the wall between the farm and nonfarm sectors in his three county area. Working with local Michigan State University Extension offices, he has put farm and business groups together on the job of supporting and expanding the region’s most basic industry and its greatest quality-of-life asset.

“What we do is take standard business concepts and apply those same concepts to agriculture. No business is unique; what’s different is their market. Farmers have a unique and challenging market, but they’re really in the same boat as other small businesses.”

Capital Investment
One of Mr. Johnson’s first moves was to hire Wendy Wieland as an agribusiness development specialist. Ms. Wieland grew up on a farm in the region and worked for Michigan Farm Bureau for several years before hiring on with the Alliance. Her job now is to research the area’s farm base, explore new markets,  and work with farmers in the region to capitalize on the new opportunities.

“We’re really concentrating now on the best fit for our growing area and for the base of people who want to be farmers,” she says.

Ms. Wieland is optimistic that the Alliance’s efforts will make a difference in the future of farming in northwest lower Michigan.

“We want to provide farmers with another choice besides selling their farm to developers. If we can help them increase their choices and decrease their risk, then we feel those people will be here.”

Contacts: Wendy Wieland, Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, 231-582-6482; wieland5@msu.edu; Wagbo Peace Center, 231-536-0333, wagbo@juno.com

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