kick-starting a culture of agricultural entrepreneurism in michigan

With the economy hurting worse than it has since the Great Depression, people, understandably, are growing concerned about providing for their families. According to a new study by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), there is a growing American concern about hunger. “This is an issue that (our presidential) candidates have not focused on, but one that needs to be part of the political debate,” sad Jim Weill, the President of the FRAC.

Among the items noted in the FRAC report, was a recent study on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation found, which found that the percentage of American adults who are at least “slightly worried” about being able to provide food for their families rose from 27 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2008. Over that same year, those who said that they were “very worried” increased from 7 percent to 20 percent.

For this, and numerous other reasons — not the least of which is the fuel required to ship produce from distant areas – we’re going to have to start re-localizing food production in this country. Fortunately, the groundwork is already being laid by organizations such as Milwaukee’s Growing Power,
and Southeast Michigan’s own Growing Hope, both of whom, through establishing community gardens, teaching agricultural skills, establishing farmers markets, and promoting food-based entrepreneurship, are making considerable progress toward ensuring that all people have access to safe, healthy, and affordable local food.

On the subject of food-based entrepreneurship, there was just a good story in the “New York Times” about the small, struggling Vermont town of Hardwick and how it turned itself around by focusing on the development of a business ecosystem built around agricultural entrepreneurship.

Andrew Meyer, the owner of Vermont Soy, is one of the primary catalysts in seeing this accomplished. He helped to launch Hardwick’s Center for an Agricultural Economy, an organization presently planning, among other things, to open an eco-industrial park for agriculture-based businesses in an attempt to, “reduce waste and pollution, efficiently share resources (such as information, materials, water, energy, infrastructure and natural resources), and increase economic gains and improve environmental quality to help achieve sustainable development.”

One wonders if a model such as this might be workable in Michigan, perhaps with the backing of a local non-profit such as, Fair Food Foundation. It certainly couldn’t hurt to initiate a conversation.

Stock market bubbles will come and go, but people will always need food. Maybe it’s time that we stop trying so hard to get in on the next big thing, like we did when we decided to focus our tobacco settlement money in the life sciences, and focus instead on something like sustainable agriculture. I’m not suggesting that we do it exclusively. It just seems as though agricultural entrepreneurism might belong on the list along with film, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing. As much as I likeg having Drew Barrymore shoot her film down the street, I’d rather have food.

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  1. egpenet
    Posted October 12, 2008 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Speaking on behalf of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse Farmers’ Market … this is EXACTLY what we hope to stimulate once wee are back in business.

    ONE leg of our mission statement includes efforts toward a vibrant locally produced food (and other commodities) economy in Ypsilanti … beginning with the Farmers’ Market revitalization and continuing with food, beverage and other entrepreneurial product development activity.

    More to come ….

  2. Posted October 12, 2008 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Michigan’s agricultural economy is often overlooked – it’s long been one of the State’s top two economic sectors alongside manufacturing (with tourism running third). I think I saw once that Michigan ranks about third in terms of crop diversity, after California and maybe New Jersey. And we’ve got no dearth of existing food-processing businesses – locally, we’ve got Zingerman’s and Eden Foods, both nationally known powerhouses, just to hit the top of the local/sustainable food business, uh, food-chain. Food-based entrepreneurship is hardly new to the area, so there’s an established base to build from.

    But, on the other hand, consider that “life sciences” are hardly a snake oil investment. You could modify your statement above to read, Stock market bubbles will come and go, but people will always need medicine. I see your statement of not focusing on food “exclusively”, and certainly think it’s an under-recognized sector, but a lot of the rest of your language in that paragraph is the same silver-bullet speak applied to food that you rightly criticize having been applied to life sciences, film, etc.

  3. mark
    Posted October 12, 2008 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    You, of course, are right, Murph. There already is a thriving agriculture business here in Michigan. Most of it, however, I suspect, is fairly large-scale. I was just suggesting that some struggling Michigan communities – like Ypsi, for instance – might want to put some effort into cultivating small-scale food-centered entrepreneurial endeavors. And I didn’t mean to say that we should focus there exclusively. I was just saying that, in addition to the film, automotive, manufacturing and biotech sectors, we might want to also focus on food.

  4. mark
    Posted October 12, 2008 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    And I agree, Ed. The Freighthouse could be an incredible hub for food-based entrepreneurship… As could the now vacant industrial kitchen facility of Bill Kinley.

  5. freeman
    Posted October 13, 2008 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Very cool article about what’s going on in Harwick.

    Local and sustainable food consciousness already seems well above the curve here in Washtenaw County as compared to elsewhere in the state, but there’s still a long ways to go, IMO.

    I agree with Mark in that I’d like to see more small-scale food enterprise.

    Where is this “vacant industrial facility of Bill Kinley”? Is it that abandoned eyesore next to Corner Brewery? If not, then what the heck is that place?

  6. Posted October 13, 2008 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    anybody read the NYT magazine yet? Michael Pollan’s piece moved me to tears and all I can think is, YES YES YES.

    And Michigan is already poised to do so much good for our region; especially if we incorporate sustainable food into the equation by having stronger regional delivery networks- through farmer’s markets, restaurants, grocers, corner markets… and treat food and food production and service as valuable and worthwhile pursuits in our culture.

    It feels like it’s happening!

    and when we as a society stop buying crap with money we don’t have at astronomical interest rates and recognize we need little more than good food, family, a roof over heads and clothes on our backs this whole endless economic bubble might finally really burst.


  7. mark
    Posted October 13, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    I just put up a link, Bee. Thanks for reminding me.

    …So, how are things going with the cafe? Are you any close to opening? I’ve had five people ask me in the past week. People apparently can’t wait to give you their money.

  8. egpenet
    Posted October 13, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    I was going to say … NYT Sunday Magazine is all about food, locally-produced food, and everyone’s renewed interest in REAL food.

    Congrats to Paul Krugman … also of the Times.

  9. Catapult
    Posted October 14, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    How much would it cost to throw together a big building on Water Street for a year-round market. If the city would give us the land, I bet we could raise the money for the building by selling shares in the community. That would really kickstart a local food community.

  10. freeman
    Posted October 14, 2008 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Good idea, Catapult!

    Although not in the city itself, I was wondering about that abandoned Farmer Jack’s at the corner of Washtenaw & Golfside. Water St. would be a cooler location though.

  11. Posted October 14, 2008 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    hey Mark, excited to see that on your front page (re the NYT magazine)

    as for the cafe.. I learned the principle of ‘underpromise and overdeliver’ while working for zingerman’s; apparently in a fit of ambition related dyslexia I nailed it backwards :D

    though I certainly didn’t budget enough time even if everything in there were ready to go as is, there have been plenty of interesting hiccups. And allow me to say I am *thrilled* that 5 people asked you just this week- since I’ve been hiding out to avoid having to answer that question!

    the interior has come a long way thanks to my CMO (chief mangenuity officer) and fiancee, bennett, and I’ve gotten a little wacky with the paint brush trying to salvage as much material as possible (and leave no paint color behind)

    and while I *will* be famous someday for the 100 some soups and collection of ‘michivore’ items (the only soda pop is classic glass bottled faygo, [if vernor’s were still made in MI I’d take some of that too] alden mill house spice blends, better made chips, growing hope’s herbs, help from brenda jo’s organics and eat local, eat natural) I hope to hell beezy’s get famous for the theresa and murph inspired ‘chicksilanti chicken salad sandwich’: roasted amish chicken with herbs, onions and mayo served topless on your choice of bread [dried veggie, sourdough, wheat or rye] ahem.

    *end gratuitous self promotion*

    So, the short answer is good, scary, and on track for opening by the end of the month. Maybe a dia de los muertos/samhain/all saint’s themed grand opening?

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