Farmers engage local leaders in ‘Community Conversation’
By Lynne Finnerty, Editor
Reprinted from the April 30, 2012 FBNews edition
The news in recent years has been full of stories about Michigan’s high unemployment rate relative to the nation and the decline of Detroit due to the struggles of America’s automobile manufacturing and related industries. But across the state in Ottawa County, a growing population enjoys a healthy economy; it’s one of the fastest-growing counties in Michigan, and that’s due in large part to the county’s agriculture.
“There are over $390 million in annual cash receipts from farms,” said Dr. Adam Kantrovich, county Extension director at Michigan State University. The county has the second-highest level of cash receipts from agriculture in the state, a title it swaps every year or two with neighboring Allegan County.
From milk, fruits and vegetables, corn and soybeans, to hogs, beef cattle and greenhouse plants―you name it, they grow it in Ottawa County, says Jason Jaekel, a Michigan Farm Bureau field staffer serving the county.
“The way we like to describe it is if it’s grown east of the Mississippi River, it’s probably found in Ottawa County,” he said.
The county still has a good manufacturing base, and its location on the banks of Lake Michigan makes it a top tourist destination. But the area’s farmers would like residents and local government leaders to know how important agriculture is in their lives. In addition, they want to start a dialog with local leaders about how to build on the area’s strengths, especially agriculture, to further economic development.
That was the starting point for a Community Conversation event held by Ottawa County Farm Bureau and MSU-Extension April 18. Attendees included Farm Bureau members, township supervisors, school superintendents, planning and zoning administrators, city managers, county commissioners, Chamber of Commerce representatives and state legislators.
“The main focus was outreach,” explained Jaekel, “to say, ‘Here we are as farmers and here’s the impact we’re having on Ottawa County. We have resources. You have the ability to help us. How can we fit into your goals.’”
The attendees started with a brainstorming session on three types of challenges in growing the local agricultural and general economy: regulations, market access and developing the local workforce.
Then, working in smaller groups, the participants decided on four more-focused issues for further discussion: a branding and marketing campaign for local agricultural products; attracting livestock production facilities, particularly pork processing, to the area; boosting agricultural and vocational education; and smart growth planning to balance the interests of maintaining land for agricultural production with preserving development rights. The committees formed at the event will meet again this summer to continue their work.
Community Conversation is a pilot program that may be replicated across the state, according to Luke Meerman, a farmer and vice president of the Ottawa County Farm Bureau. He said the Michigan Farm Bureau board of directors looked at the idea and picked Ottawa County to be the testing site for it. The county board endorsed the idea wholeheartedly, he said.
“The idea of reaching across boundaries is very exciting,” said Meerman. “Too often those boundaries we’ve created are all self-made. Once we cross those boundaries, we find out there’s not that big a difference in what we’re all trying to accomplish. I think that for the community as a whole, this is how to move forward as a group. We’re so interconnected. We cannot view ourselves as islands unto ourselves.”
Meerman said the county’s farmers have “a lot of capital to work with” in reaching out to local leaders, and not just on what’s important to them, but on what’s good for the whole community, the state and the nation.
“The farmers are a group that they respect and admire, but had not had a chance to talk with face-to-face,” Meerman said. “I think they were surprised by how much we were thinking about community issues already, such as childhood education—how do we reshape Michigan’s education vision, starting in Ottawa County. I think it was refreshing for them to learn from us personally that we do have things we can work on together.”
Kantrovich says that a local agriculture branding and marketing effort would succeed. Sales of turkey produced locally and processed at a facility established by the region’s turkey growers in a neighboring county are excellent, he says. Getting a large, commercial hog processing facility in the county could offer the same type of opportunity. Many of the region’s hog producers now have to send their animals to Indiana for processing, according to Jaekel.
Consumers’ support for Meijer, a growing regional chain of retail stores with Michigan roots, also shows the potential of a local branding effort.
“You can have a Wal-Mart and a Meijer store across the street from each other, and people will gravitate to the Meijer store because it’s right here in Michigan,” said Kantrovich. “People would be more likely to look for that [local] brand.”
He said that the attendees also are taking a regional approach to looking at opportunities for growth, “because what takes place on zoning, education, economic development, etc., here affects the county next door.”