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Make the Local Farm Connection

Entrepreneurs, partners find profitability in farming

July 15, 2002 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  When Pam Bosserd quit her sales job and married field crop farmer Dave Bosserd she had no idea she soon would be competing with him for work space in the barn and in the field near Marshall, Michigan.
Just as consumer demand is pulling farmers into new food markets, citizen demand can pull farming back onto local and state government’s economic development agenda.

When Pam Bosserd, for instance, quit her sales job and married field crop farmer Dave Bosserd, she had no idea she soon would be competing with him for work space in the barn and in the field.

Bosserd Farm Market started as an experiment for this young wife and mother. But now the roadside market in front of her Marshall home, near Interstate 94 south of Battle Creek, has taken on a whole business life of its own. "Every year I keep stealing a little bit more land. I started with one acre, and now we’re up to 40 acres of vegetables, pumpkins, and flowers."

The amount of land the Bosserds devote to their farm market is growing because of a simple economic fact: The family makes more profit per acre of produce and flowers than it does per acre of soybeans and corn.

Ms. Bosserd is quick to point out that there is a tradeoff. "We make more profit per acre, but there’s also more labor per acre."

This tradeoff is worth making, she says, "if you really love it like we do and if you want both parents to stay on the farm."

Making it work is a matter of making it fun and rewarding for everyone, she says. Clean buildings and attractive displays invite passersby, as do family activities, such as a maze cut into a corn field.

But fresh food and real people are the best selling points. "Our average customer wants a relationship with a farmer and to know the food is picked fresh every day."

Every Michigan resident can help make the same connections whether they are a county commissioner trying to save valuable farmland or a mother looking to buy farm fresh eggs. Getting involved is the way to give local farmers the assistance they need to move out of dead-end commodity markets and into the more promising field of feeding their neighbors and nearby cities.

The first step is to learn what may already be happening in your community. Then start putting the local farm and farmland puzzle together.

What’s Up
Many pieces of the puzzle already are taking shape in Michigan and may well be underway in your community.

Agriculture agencies and researchers, such as Michigan State University Extension, are putting more time into exploring new production methods and consumer markets. Public interest organizations also are breaking ground, such as an effort to develop an agricultural products innovation center. This initiative, led by Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems and Rural Partners of Michigan, aims to provide tools for turning good ideas into profitable ventures.

On the farmland protection side of the puzzle, communities across the state are working to reduce sprawl’s pressure on pastureland, cropland, and orchards. They are raising money to offer farmers more financial options than the often last-ditch step of selling the family’s land. Communities also are guiding growth into already developed areas both to save farmland and to save taxpayers the cost of building sewer and water systems far and wide. And voters are calling for needed changes in Michigan tax law to assess farmland on its agricultural "use value" rather than its higher commercial and residential value.

Key Piece
Largely missing from the new farm futures movement, however, are the economic development leaders and agencies that still picture agriculture as a large-scale, global-market industry in which most local farmers have little hope of survival. From this traditional standpoint, farming is either the federal government’s responsibility or an economic sector that agencies help people escape by providing manufacturing and retail jobs.

Economic developers in Michigan need to know, however, that many farms are breaking into a brand new territory full of opportunity — that a new age of entrepreneurial agriculture is on the rise. Consumer demand is invigorating farm markets, with sales and profits going to those who can switch from the commodity production focus of the past 50 years to a marketing and consumer-product orientation. And as more farmers are able to make a living on their land, their communities benefit from the water quality protection, beautiful landscapes, fresh food, and rural lifestyle that active farms can provide.

We Can Help
Citizens and local government officials can paint a new farm picture for the agencies that serve them. They can introduce economic developers to new farms and new food markets. And they can ask agriculture organizations and business groups to meet and learn how they can work together to capitalize on emerging opportunities. The new entrepreneurial agriculture can become a local development priority when officials see its economic and farmland protection potential.

Patty Cantrell, a journalist and economist, leads the Michigan Land Use Institute’s project to promote alternatives that increase profits and choices for Michigan’s family farmers and their communities. Contact her at 231-882-4723 ext. 14 or patty@mlui.org. Learn more about MLUI and become a supporting member at www.mlui.org.
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