In West Michigan, agri-business is the second-biggest industry behind manufacturing. And the biggest business in this sector is farming, whether cornfields, fruit orchards, or livestock.
With nearly 9,500 employed in ag-related businesses and $506 million worth of products sold annually — according to 2017 Census stats — Ottawa County's agricultural sector is strong, with wide-ranging economic, cultural, and nutritional impacts.
But farmers have faced challenges beyond their control — from the weather to trade agreements — that impact their income. That’s why Ottawa County keeps a pulse on the local ag industry.
On March 23 — National Agriculture Day — the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners showed its support for the Focus on Agriculture plan. The new, four-part economic development action plan aims to address some of the issues that local farms face.
Focus on Agriculture was developed as a result of the 2019 Ottawa County Farmland Preservation Survey, which asked area agricultural landowners and producers how best to protect and support farmland in the county and, by extension, the local farming industry.
"Industry data, the farmland survey, and anecdotal reports all point to the same challenges — farmland is being lost to development, aging farmers are retiring and not being replaced, financial and property hurdles are preventing young farmers from entering the industry," says Becky Huttenga, Ottawa County Economic Development Coordinator. "With Focus on Agriculture, we have identified ways that the county and industry partners can work together to help address these issues."
The action plan targets these challenges through four focus areas:
• Succession Planning — develop an incentive pilot program, private-sector partnerships, and host events.
• Comprehensive Land Use Vision — improve planning and zoning efforts with improved data, mapping, and, when possible, encourage brownfield redevelopment over new construction.
• Economic Viability — address barriers to financial success by supporting and promoting the use of development rights agreements, farmer income diversification, tax incentives, high-speed internet expansion, and technology.
• Agricultural Easements — continued promotion of and investment in farmland protection through the Purchase of Development Rights Program, as well as pursuing additional funding avenues and protection methods.
Supporting this important initiative is a robust group of partners, including Lakeshore Advantage, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Homestead Orchards LLC, the Ottawa County Farm Bureau, as well as local farmers and food processors.
"For years, Ottawa County and its partners have worked together on numerous different ag industry issues," says Erin Moore, District Director for Michigan State University Extension (MSUE). "The Focus on Agriculture plan helps zero in on some key actions that can help support the local farm economy by slowing the loss of farmers, farms, and ultimately farmland."
Ottawa County shares its efforts to support its agricultural industry and updates on Focus on Agriculture at miOttawa.org/farmland