The Leelanau Conservancy hosted a food and farming forum this past weekend as part of their 25th anniversary series.
The event was kicked off by Jim Nugent, former Director of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center, who took us on an agricultural tour of past and present Leelanau County where he was able to dig up some interesting old pictures of farms from the turn of the century.
He showed how the county evolved from a general farm that had many different animals and crops to the county that now produces 25 percent of the nation’s tart cherries.
Nugent was followed by Rich Pirog, Senior Associate Director of the Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems, who talked to the crowd about the successes of the local food movement. Pirog also introduced new concepts about regional food systems and food hubs.
A panel rounded out the discussion, which was comprised of a diverse group of agricultural experts located in the region: Abra Berens, chef and farmer, Bareknuckle Farms; Don Coe, manager partner, Black Star Farms; Chip Hoagland, Founder, Cherry Capitol Foods; Amy Tennis, hops farmer and Oryana Board President, New Mission Organics; and me.
The panel was asked to discuss the challenges and opportunities for the farming community now and into the future. One of the resounding opportunities that came across with both the panel make-up — three of five panelists were younger women in agriculture — and from the discussions were the new or emerging farmers here in northwest. These new farmers to Leelanau County, as well as to other counties in the region, are farmers that are either totally new to agriculture and are beginning new farm business or farmers that are from farm families and are returning back to the farming operation.
With either of these types of new farmers, they face many challenges: high land costs, capital for farm start-up or change in operations, profitability, labor, adequate technical and leadership skills, and a changing consumer and marketing landscape.
Despite these challenges, a support system to assist new farmers is in place in the forms of Michigawn State University Extension, the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center, the Leelanau Conservancy, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, conservation districts, Farm Bureau, Michigan Land Use Institute, and other organizations that have contributed support to new farmers.
Without reliable state, federal and county funds, these groups will have to find innovative ways to partner with each other and the new faces in agriculture to ensure the continued success of agriculture throughout northwest Michigan.
Although no one on the panel could say for sure what agriculture will look like 30 years from now, we all felt confident that this sector of our economy and community will be healthy, thriving, and on the lookout for new and improved ways of bringing food from the farm to your table.
The next installment of the Leelanau Conservancy’s 25th anniversary series will be held in May, and will focus on changes in our forests and natural lands. Please look for more details on these free and educational sessions in spring 2014.
Dr. Nikki Rothwell is the district horticulturist at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center in Bingham Township.