Group Wants To Sustain Farming

February 20, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Consumers in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties spend roughly $2 billion each year in grocery stores, and about 85 percent of those finished food products come from other locales, much of it from other countries.

On top of that, for every dollar a local consumer spends on food, the farmer receives only 20 cents. In 1910, 41 cents of every dollar spent on food went to the farmer.

For farmers, earning less than half of what they did 96 years ago hardly makes being in the agriculture business sustainable. But the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) hopes to change that by putting the focus on the land and the farmer.

“We have a real opportunity, economically, if we shift our buying habits to support local farms,” said Tom Cary of WMEAC. “That is one way we can sustain agriculture.”

Cary is coordinating the West Michigan Forum for Sustainable Agriculture, a project sponsored by WMEAC and being funded by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

The effort, announced late last month, plans to bring members of the farming and environmental communities together to figure out the best way to sustain the region’s dwindling farmland and to return some of the industry’s profitability back to farmers.

“We need to better support the people who grow the food because they have to be able to live here. As consumers of food, we need to take a greater role in helping move ourselves toward a system that produces healthier, safer food and (in which) the conditions the farmer has to work under are safer,” said Cary.

One of the forum’s major goals is to replace the petrochemicals used in today’s industry, cutting the reliance on oil-based fertilizers and pesticides with more natural methods such as compost. WMEAC noted that Kent County farmers spent $10.4 million on such products in 1997. A side effect of cutting the chemicals would make the industry more organic in nature and help preserve the soil’s nutrients for more years of production.

The agency also pointed out that if farming doesn’t become more profitable for the local farmer, then more farmland would be lost to commercial development. Between 1987 and 1997, 65,000 acres of land in the region stopped growing food.

Cary said the initial purpose of the forum is to build an organized infrastructure in West Michigan to help farmers successfully move toward sustainable production systems for food, fuel and fiber.

The forum will focus on farmland in Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, Barry, Ionia, Allegan, Newaygo and Montcalm counties.

Joining WMEAC in the effort are the MSU Extension Service, the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council, the Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems and farmers. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation agreed to underwrite the forum with a $60,000 grant.

Preliminary figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month revealed that Michigan lost 360,929 acres of farmland from 1997 to 2002.

Landowners get more money from selling their properties to developers than they can get from farming.

“The 2002 Census is an indication that farmland loss continues to have a significant impact on our farmland base in Michigan,” said Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

The department’s statistics also showed that farms with sales of less than $2,500 rose by 39 percent over that period, while those selling from $10,000 to $499,999 worth of products fell by nearly 19 percent.

“A farmer may get a penny from the amount of wheat that either Kellogg’s or Post can turn into a $4 box of cereal,” said Cary. “So the margin that farmers are getting is very low, and it has gotten to where it is quite often the cost of production, meaning many farmers are operating at the break-even level.”

The situation for farmers isn’t much different from the one other manufacturers find themselves in, as cheaper labor and fewer environmental laws in Mexico and China make it harder for both to compete.

The forum gets underway this month, and Cary thought it would take between six and eight months for the steering committee to develop an operational framework. Once the framework is in place, WMEAC and its partners will present it to the public.

“One problem is the middlemen have taken up most of the income that had gone to the farmer, and that has made farming uneconomical,” said Cary. “That is one major challenge.”

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