Mike Score is an agricultural innovation counselor for Michigan State University, working full time for its Product Center through MSU Extension. He is also a member of the MSU C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems.
Mike writes about why we need to pay more and better attention to Michigan's $60 billion food and agriculture economy.Join the conversation with your comments! metromode's guest blogger series runs on a bi-weekly schedule through the summer. We will return to weekly bloggers starting in September.
Photograph by Alex Dziadosz - All Rights Reserved
What would life be like in Michigan if we made a concerted effort to develop a more sustainable food system? Let me be a bold visionary here and paint a future that is in many ways better than our past.
Having grown up in the Detroit metropolitan area I am entitled to observe that urban/rural relationships are poor. Urban and rural people do not understand each other. They blame each other for our current state of affairs. The course I am advocating will increase mutual appreciation in our region, and actually provides a platform for meaningful dialogue among diverse groups that have hated each other in the past. I’m talking about opportunities to reduce racial discrimination, overcome prejudice, and develop a healthy dependency on each other, not through abstract philosophical bantering but by rubbing shoulders with each other in the food system marketplace.
Our food system would be better insulated from crises related to food security. When we are temporarily cut off from motor fuels by an energy crisis like the black out we experienced a few years back life is difficult. If, for some reason, either through terrorism or natural disaster, we lost access to food staples we would face unprecedented challenges. Incorporating production of food and fiber into our regional economy as a sector that stands shoulder to shoulder with automobile production and high technology industries will provide valuable public safety and well-being pay-offs.
Increasing regional production of fresh produce and improving distribution systems for moving regional farm goods into local markets will help us shed our reputation as a poorly nourished, obese population.
Maintaining some access to the global marketplace so we can continue to enjoy pineapples and other specialty products, but increasing our dependence on local agriculture will reduce wasteful transportation expenditures, redeploy capital toward job creation and business growth, and take fuller advantage of the natural resource systems we are blessed with.
Other states would die for our land and water resources.
Michigan, unlike any other region in the world, is suited for building a strong economy based on agricultural production, distribution, processing, and marketing. There have been times when rural leaders have understood this truth. At other times urban leaders have seen this vision. I am hoping that we can get to a point where they see this potential simultaneously and agree to work together.
Rhetoric has some value, but when working through difficult chronic issues I find it mostly annoying. Not wanting to ramble on about the need for pursuing economic growth through development of a more sustainable food system without actually pointing to the way forward, I will draw on recent research completed by the Michigan State University Product Center to identify specific business ventures that are well suited to fit within the regional economy of southeast Michigan.
Grain Milling: In order to succeed here we need urban people to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what comes out of fields planted to corn, soybeans, oats, wheat, and other regional grain crops. Oils, protein, gluten, starch, and other components derived from grain are used as inputs for thousands of common consumer products.
Food Ventures Targeting Regional Ethnic Populations: Major population groups have difficulty understanding how important it is to minority groups to gain access to food products that match up with traditional recipes, flavors, and textures. There is room in our regional marketplace for additional food processing firms catering to various ethnic groups.
Crop Diversification: Southeast Michigan currently only produces between 15 and 20 different vegetable, fruit, and nut crops. Some of the acreage we use for producing low-value commodities can be managed differently to produce higher-value produce for direct sale to consumers.
Food Distribution: The reason many institutional food services do not buy direct from regional farm businesses is the lack of an efficient clearing house for local farm goods.
Labor Management Services: Many farm businesses hire seasonal help. There are difficulties in recruiting workers and handling the paperwork associated with seasonal labor.
Insurance: Small farm businesses interested in selling through urban retail businesses have difficulty covering costs of required liability insurance. Insurance companies can expand business by offering more affordable group policies.
Notice that the business opportunities associated with the food system are not exclusively rural. Urban jobs and rural jobs would develop as we take steps to make our regional food systems more sustainable.
Why can’t local leaders make local food systems work?
I’ve come to the conclusion that improving our local food system requires regional strategies. Most of our governmental processes for economic development are too narrowly focused. We’ve carved the world up into little pieces, and prefer working toward solutions to chronic problems from our own little point of view.
Urban populations have declined. Remaining residents are saddled with brownfields and high infrastructure maintenance costs. While the Detroit metropolitan area has a nation-high unemployment rate of 6.9 percent (U.S. Census, 2007) some pockets have double-digit chronic unemployment. Urban leaders keep looking to urban industries for solutions they cannot deliver.
Rural communities have been awash in agricultural commodities. Most of the past ten years have required local farm businesses to sell harvested goods below costs of production. Budget deficits in farm businesses have been covered by tapping into farm business equity built up over generations of family ownership, or by drawing on off-farm incomes. Farm financial problems stem from our failure to convert commodities into higher-value consumer goods. Rather than selling products directly to consumers for retail prices, farms have sold goods by the truckload into global commodity markets. Rather than processing fruits and vegetable into shelf-ready products, we have shipped fresh produce by truck or rail to other states. While we’ve known about technologies that convert grains and forages into fuels and industrial fibers, we have chosen to ramp up demand for petroleum by making it the single source for industrial growth.
Imagine a food system where chronic problems of urban and rural communities are resolved through collaboration. Chronically unemployed urban workers are deployed to convert commodities into consumer goods. Processing facilities are built on reclaimed brownfields rather than on greenfields suited for agricultural production. Our excuses for importing migrant laborers to complete farm work, or shipping agricultural commodities out of the region for processing used to be our high regional labor costs and land values. Now that property values have undergone a correction and wages have been renegotiated to more competitive levels, new possibilities have arisen for making our regional food system more sustainable.
Recent reports reveal that 96% of U.S. consumers have high interest levels in consuming local food. Consumers increasingly care about where their food comes from and how it was produced following scares about lower-cost foodstuffs imported from China like melamine-tainted products, and botulism-contaminated chili.
Consumers are also becoming more aware of their carbon footprints. In conversations I've had with regional food distributors I've learned that one-half of current grocery store prices for fresh produce is accounted for by transportation costs associated with shipping fruit and vegetables from out of state. Consumers don't see the sense in tying up 50 percent of their food dollars in senseless transportation costs. Just think about the capital that could be freed up for new investment if we redeployed 25 to 50 percent of dollars spent on feeding Michigan residents.
If we were consuming all of our locally grown products in Michigan and still experiencing a shortfall it would make sense to continue importing goods from other states or countries. But Michigan Agricultural Statistics reports suggest that only 1% of farm products in southeast Michigan are sold directly to consumers. We are shipping most of our farm products out of state for processing, then importing them back in, blended with product from the global commodity system, under major brand labels.
Regional food retailers have been working hard with modest results to increase their offerings of local agricultural goods. Only 34 percent of farmers in southeast Michigan report satisfaction with marketing channels for moving their fruits and vegetables into the marketplace.
Consumers are demanding local products. Retailers are looking for local goods to put on their shelves. Farmers are struggling to find marketing channels that place their goods in regional stores. What is wrong with our food system? Why can't local leaders make local food systems work?
Everyone is wondering how we can turn our economy toward a more positive direction. The agri-food system in Michigan is our most fruitful sector for economic recovery and improved quality of life.
The size and scope of our $60 billion food and agriculture economy was shared with state leaders through a report from the Michigan State University Product Center
in January 2007. In this report, Dr. Chris Peterson states that 24% of Michigan’s workforce is employed in the system that produces farm goods and moves them from field to end user. He also points out that investors have pumped $8.6 billion into the agri-food system over the past five years, and that continuation of existing initiatives could create 12,000 to 23,000 new jobs.
Simultaneously, while working toward recovery in our traditional industrial powerhouses, we could take advantage of the possibilities growing out of the conversion of agricultural commodities into higher-value consumer goods. This means taking notice of the food system as an economic sector, understanding resources managed within it, and taking actions toward improved consumer access to local farm goods.
Agriculture as an industry isn't "sexy" in new economy terms. It's the most basic and essential industry to human life. We must eat. How and what we eat should always be atop any agenda. With renewed focus on developing localities in terms of their downtowns and homegrown industries it makes vital sense to make local food systems a part of the conversation.
The food system is vast. It begins with agricultural production. The Detroit metropolitan area is the 9th largest urban center in the United States. From a food system perspective this market represents 2.8 million people eating 1200 pounds of food per capita annually. It is surrounded by an ocean of agricultural commodities. We have more than 960,000 acres (1,500 square miles) of land within the agricultural portfolio of southeast Michigan. Our state agricultural production is often cited as the second most diverse food system in the United States, trailing only California in terms of significant agricultural products. Statistics show that the counties surrounding the Detroit metropolitan area have the soils, climate, and farm business skills to produce state-leading yields in several crop and livestock species.
The pattern of urban centers surrounded by substantial agricultural regions is typical of Michigan's landscape. Fly from Detroit to Chicago, or drive to Jackson, Lansing, Flint, Saginaw, Kalamazoo, or Grand Rapids. Each smaller urban/rural relationship makes up a patchwork quilt of economic development opportunity.
Unfortunately, when people think of agriculture they usually envision farming, which translates in their minds to a dead end. Agricultural land has been converted to "higher and better uses" at a breakneck pace in recent decades. But taking land conversion as a sign that agriculture is dead or dying is a faulty conclusion. Beyond crop and livestock production the food system includes natural resource management, food product development, industrial processing, pharmaceutical product development, grocery and restaurant industries, and cultural development. Viewing agriculture and the food system as a broader set of economic activities will help leaders consider how these resources can be managed to improve our economic wellbeing and quality of life.