Whitney Waara

As efforts to expand and strengthen the economy of the Grand Traverse region continue to gain momentum, it will be equally important to maintain and celebrate the traditional economic sectors that have taken our region to where it is today.

There is no industry with a longer history, more extensive footprint, or larger impact to the visible character of our region than the agriculture sector.

From the community’s earliest days as a lumbering region to its long association with the cherry and apple industry, and more recently the burgeoning grape operations and significant produce, livestock, dairy and specialty farms across our landscape, Northwest Michigan has always been synonymous with growing and harvesting agricultural products.

Farming is inherently challenging to predict and sustain, and it is among our region’s most vulnerable economic sectors. As our area’s land-use patterns began to change and more farmland became lost to housing development in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, area residents began to reassess the community’s commitment to the agricultural sector.

Then in 1994, leaders and residents of Peninsula Township took the extraordinary step of implementing a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program that generated public funds to purchase development rights to ensure that township farms would continue to operate.

Residents in 2002 overwhelmingly extended the program for another 20 years.

The PDR program marked a watershed moment for Northwest Michigan agriculture, and it spawned a renewed commitment to protecting the farmland and open spaces that make the region unique.

Today, evidence points to the strength of our agriculture sector. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2017, the market value of products sold from Grand Traverse County’s nearly 500 operating farms topped $34 million, an increase of almost 90 percent from 2012.

That metric is particularly impressive considering the market value of the county’s farm products fell about by 5 percent between 2012 and 2007. Total net cash farm income soared by more than 2,000 percent from 2012 to 2017 to more than $10.7 million, and the average net cash farm income grew at a similar rate.

Several factors are behind these impressive trends.

The community’s commitment to “buy local” continues to grow, and our farmers markets and other retail outlets are making local agricultural products more available to consumers. Farmers are changing and focusing on their business models, adapting to market trends and innovating to reduce costs.

State and federal agriculture agencies also are working hard to export more Michigan products to new markets throughout the country and around the globe, and the popularity of agri-tourism destinations like wineries and cider mills are helping strengthen the agricultural sector.

Organizations like Groundwork Center are successfully working to put additional state resources toward integrating local agricultural products into food service at area schools.

However, despite all the progress, our region’s agriculture sector continues to face significant challenges and vulnerabilities.

The demographics of the farming community continue to age. More than a third of Grand Traverse County’s agriculture producers are over age 65; less than 10 percent are under 35.

The agricultural landmark Shetler’s Dairy in Kalkaska – the Chamber’s Business of the Year in Kalkaska just four years ago – closed over the weekend after 40 years in operation; the family was unable to continue the business after the recent passing of founders Sally and George Shetler.

Our region’s signature cherry industry struggles with supply and demand factors, complicated by international trade issues as foreign countries flood the market with heavily subsidized cheap imports.

Land, supply and equipment costs continue to rise for area farmers, further squeezing their operational balance sheets.

For younger farmers or those interested in getting into the business, the cost of entry is high, the work is intensive, and the ROI may take decades.

Vigilance is a key component of any effective economic development strategy; it helps the community be ready to pivot, intervene or dive in deep to an issue when things may veer off track.

While the region’s agricultural sector has made significant strides over the past decade, it’s important going forward to renew our commitment to our farming community.

We must strengthen our efforts to purchase and find new markets for our amazing array of agriculture products, push for level playing fields in global trade markets, and endorse smart public policy to keep our farm producers viable and growing.

Agriculture is an indelible part of our region’s great history – and no less important to its foreseeable future.

Whitney is Executive Director of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and a former market farmer. Contact her by email at whitney@tcchamber.org.

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