I had a chance to speak to the American Forage and Grasslands Conference in Grand Rapids on June 22. Anytime someone asks me to talk about Michigan agriculture and MSU Extension, it gives me an opportunity to reflect on Michigan’s special place in the agricultural economy, and agriculture’s special place in Michigan’s economy.
We all know the talking points—Michigan’s agricultural economy is a growing enterprise with the total economic impact exceeding $71 billion last year, up from $63 billion a year earlier; and Michigan’s agricultural economy is second only to California in the diversity of commodities produced.
As a native Iowan, I often joke with colleagues from the corn belt states about having so few commodity groups to work with in their states (corn, soy, beef and swine) as opposed to the dozens of organizations we work with in Michigan. But really, that reflects one of the Michigan’s strengths. Diversity of commodities and organizations feeds innovation. Innovation feeds economic growth—something Michigan could use in great volume. The collaborative relationship among the commodity groups, and the fact that many farmers belong to multiple groups because of their own production diversity, means that new ideas from production of one type of crop or animal infiltrate and become adopted in other production systems. In addition, some of the commodities our farms produce go directly to consumers while others go into commodity markets. That blurs the separation between producer and consumer, which means that the attention to consumer demands has more influence on Michigan farmers than in other states that only produce bulk commodities.
For example, Michigan was the first state to implement required electronic animal identification for all livestock that leave the farm—whether to go to market or to be finished by another farmer. This didn’t happen out of a sense of need to please consumers. It was required as a management tool in dealing with the difficulty of Michigan’s bovine tuberculosis outbreak. And it wasn’t exactly accepted with enthusiasm by all livestock producers. But the fact is, it was implemented here first and more rapidly and with less resistance than in other states. I attribute part of this to the good relationships among Michigan Department of Agriculture, livestock producers, Michigan Farm Bureau, and MSU, including MAES, MSUE, and the Colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Veterinary Medicine. And those relationships have been developed over the years in part as a way of managing the diverse needs of Michigan’s agricultural economy.
Last week our state Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension Council met for a tour of some projects and partners in northern lower Michigan. We saw innovation among whitefish producers, a diversified potato/carrot/string bean/strawberry farm, and a growing family farm that produces pastured poultry. Clearly these operations—one more than 110 years old and another less than five years old—succeed largely due to the ideas, passions and hard work of the people involved. But each one also benefits from other growers who shared insights from their farms AND from the partnership of MAES and MSUE.
We’re honored to serve the people who make Michigan agriculture successful. We’re also challenged to keep up with them in their innovation, passion and hard work. Just like them, we are continuously in need of reviewing our priorities and how we pursue them. They provide plenty of inspiration.