A Growing Concern

I used to be a fruit picker. Wearing braids and denim overalls, I passed balmy summer grade school breaks in Grandma's street-side Royal Oak yard, harvesting heaps of ripe magenta raspberries, and boiling them down with sugar to make lickety-rich preserves. In recent decades, however, I haven't been such a busy worker bee. I did cultivate a spiky fountain of chives in my shady back yard, but sadly, after a season or so, my prolific crop was lost to flooding or neglect – not sure which came first. For years afterward, thoughts of raising edibles lay buried in my mind; at least until my recent talk with Mike Score, an agricultural innovation counselor at the Michigan State University (MSU) Product Center.

Score points out a general lack of awareness of ground-level economic development potential. "It would be to Michigan's advantage to take a closer look at agriculture as a sector in our economy, because in general, we take it for granted and we really don't understand it as well as we should, given its size."

Michigan's agri-food industry, which includes agriculture, leather, floriculture, ornamentals, turf grass, and bio-energy industries, generates $60.1 billion in economic output and a little more than one million jobs, – about 24% of the state's employment – likely second in size only to the automotive industry, according to a 2006 Michigan State University study "The Economic Impact and Potential of Michigan's Agri-Food System." 

With much fanfare, in 2005 the state launched the $1 billion 21st Century Jobs Fund  to foster economic development by growing technologies in life science, alternative energy, advanced automotive technologies, and homeland security. Sexy business sectors, no doubt. But where's the respect for an industry that literally affects the lives of everyone in Michigan?

Mike Hamm, C.S. Mott professor of sustainable agriculture at MSU, says the field "can be a tool to help us solve public health issues … It's a way to protect our landscape for generations as they get older so that we don't lose our farmland and become dependent on more and more distant sources for food at a time when global population is increasing and water stresses are becoming more severe around the world … Historically, in the last 25 years or so we've not really considered local agriculture as a viable strategy for economic development..."

Where is it from?

Indeed, it comes down to digging up our food's roots. Just 1% of Michigan-grown food is sold locally, direct to consumers, says Score, who learned from a major food distribution executive that transportation makes up half of food costs.

For instance, Michigan is the third largest producer of apples in the nation, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture. But this sure isn't evident in area Costco stores, where you seldom find our state's rosy Galas or Empires. Their pallets brim with the bounty of Washington's orchards, fresh from two thousand miles away.

And even apples can be a hard sell. Hamm, who helps to develop community-based food systems, has observed a "public health gap", where the average U.S. resident's diet is deficient: we consume half the daily required fruits and vegetables, one-third of necessary dairy products, and we worship white bread. Ubiquitous fast food and packaged snacks galore are not just to blame; many lack the resources and access to obtain healthy fresh foods.

In a study to be released later this year, Hamm found that if the state's public health gap could be bridged through consumption of more locally produced fresh food, an estimated 37,000 more farmland acres could go into production, putting $200 million more in the pockets of farmers and creating about 1,800 off-farm jobs. A family can live off a good 20-acre farm, so additional farm jobs could be in the three-to-four digit range.

Farming a fair share

The Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Foundation, whose slogan is "Grow the Good", is concentrating on closing this gap by aiming to work with historically excluded urban communities to design food systems that provide healthy, fresh and sustainably-grown food.. President and CEO Oran Hesterman says it's the only foundation in the country, possibly even in the world, with a focus on an equitable and sustainable local food system.

A May 2007 Ann Arbor Business Review story put the foundation's expected annual grants in the $12 to $20 million range. Hesterman will not confirm specific numbers at this point, but does anticipate a "significant" program. It commenced operations earlier this year, and personnel are preparing strategies and guidelines for reviewing grant applications this fall, he says.

"What I'm especially interested in is … how we might be able to position both jobs and ownership opportunities in food production, processing, distribution, preparation, and retailing that can attract, especially, young entrepreneurs in the southeast Michigan area," says Hesterman. "We're in an area that's got really good natural conditions for farming and growing food. We've got good water, which is certainly not the case everywhere. We've got access to very vibrant markets and large population centers. … I don't think it's unreasonable that at some point in time we'd have 20% of our food system more localized than it is right now. I don’t think that's out of bounds and we have the productive capacity to do it, for sure."

The MSU Product Center also works to grow new and existing food, agricultural, and natural resources-based businesses by helping entrepreneurs to write business plans, create financial models, and identify customers. Score has worked with 180 clients over the last three years, 40 of whom have implemented a variety of business plans, including: a purveyor of clean green soy-based fertilizer in Manchester; horticultural products on the Goetz Farm in Monroe County; a sheep cheese maker in Chelsea; and Mercury Coffee Bar in Detroit.

And the shortest route to going local is right out the front or back door – urban and community gardening, which has spread its roots in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Score sees a trend of consumers eating from home – literally. And burning what they eat. "It's not hard labor, like breaking rocks at the state prison. It's pleasant aerobic exercise that gives you short-term gratification. … I think urban gardening will become a significant source of produce in southeast Michigan." He believes that Ashley Atkinson, co-chair of the Detroit Agriculture Network, whose work was recently featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, runs one of the best urban gardening programs in the U.S..

This ground-up focus addresses our most elementary regional development issues. "When you look at nutrition and access to food, you're looking at job creation and nutrition, which affects school performance, which affects life opportunities," says Score, who notes that the inputs for food production are relatively simple and inexpensive. "Young children can grow tomatoes and sell them at the roadside and learn how to start a small business. … There's a high demand from restaurants and grocery stores and institutional food buyers for high quality local food. Food system economic development can be exciting for the full spectrum of Michigan residents."

So, we can all buy what's in store. I even have a plot to produce in the yard again. The tomato, basil, and, yes, chives, seeds are ready, and my pots are back in the sun.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate (plus all-round swell person). Read her previous story for us, Information Evolution.

All photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.

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