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.