Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 10, 2013

Expert: Region has only ‘scratched surface’ for ag

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Northern Michigan’s agricultural sector only “scratched the surface” in realizing business opportunities for exporting farm products around the world, an economic development expert said.

Douglas Smith, a senior vice president at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, said the northern Michigan region has a big upside for economic growth in farming.

“Immense potential,” Smith said. “Most people don’t realize, even in this state, that we are the second most diverse agricultural state. From corn to asparagus to dried cherries to soy beans — the world market is demanding more and more of those products. Regarding the ability to grow and export, we’ve just scratched the surface.”

Smith said transportation is a critical component to increasing agricultural exports. He said the state needs to improve the condition of roads and take care of rail lines that can feed Michigan products to Canada, Mexico, or global shipping ports.

“Transportation, distribution, logistics,” Smith said. “How you ship things, how you truck things, how how you rail things. In the northern part of the state, I would be concerned and hopeful that we are building an infrastructure to transport our goods all around the world.”

The state is trying to improve transportation infrastructure for commerce with mixed results. Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a funding plan for roads, but it faltered because taxpayers and legislators balked at footing the bill. State transportation officials are studying how to improve northern Michigan rail lines to help promote business access to shipping by rail.

“It’s a transportation issue -- making sure our roads are in good shape and that rail is there and that there’s access by air,” Smith said. “Everyone talks about the Ambassador Bridge, but equally important to us is the bridge of Port Huron and the bridge at Sault Ste. Marie connecting us to our largest export market, which is Canada.”

Smith said farmers and food processors need to think beyond local and with regional and international markets in mind. Farmers should turn to state agriculture and local economic development leaders for connections to state and MEDC programs aimed at assisting exports.

The state’s agricultural exports generated $1.75 billion in 2010. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, there were 14,700 agricultural export-related jobs in Michigan the same year. Exports were expected to grow to over $2 billion in 2012.

“There’s a large agricultural sector that we haven’t been as focused on before, and the ability to transport our goods and services around the world is going to be the future of Michigan,” Smith said.