Michigan agri-business group fears cuts in state budget

March 5, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Van Woerkem says some cuts may be necessary.

The Michigan Agri-Business Association said this week the Michigan Legislature is considering "huge" cuts in the state Department of Agriculture budget, possibly as much as $18 million, which would be equal to about 20 percent of that department's total budget.

“Agriculture is Michigan’s second-largest industry and one of the rare bright spots in our economy, creating more than a million jobs and pumping nearly $70 billion into our economy,” said MABA President Jim Byrum. “These proposed cuts will set back one of the few bright spots in our economy and send Michigan agriculture backward. Department of Agriculture funds are vital to Michigan citizens, from maintaining our ability to keep food safe for consumers to competing for trade with other countries and states to creating jobs and new investments."

Sen. Gerald Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores, chair of the Senate Agriculture and Bioeconomy Committee, said it was too early to be specific about cuts to the agriculture budget, although he did confirm that state officials had met to discuss "trying to find places where we can absorb a cut" in the agriculture budget, "which is very difficult."

"I think we are one of the smallest budgets in the state," said Van Woerkom, "dealing with the second largest industry in the state. It’s a tough thing to scale the department back and still be able to hold out hope that we can do a good job by agriculture in Michigan."

Van Woerkom said there are proposals for a general cut across the board in agriculture, but "I don't think it will happen that way." Instead, he said, it might focus on certain programs that would be "scaled back completely."

VanWoerkom said the Michigan government has to look at all expenditures and consider if it can afford to continue "doing certain things."

Food safety is a big issue, he said, one that the Michigan Department of Agriculture is involved in.

"People get nervous," said Van Woerkem. "We want to make sure we can still maintain the confidence of the public in our food system, while scaling back to a certain degree in the agriculture department.  So we have to look for areas that are not areas that put people at risk in any way."

"We're getting to the point where there's not many places to cut anymore," he said.

Earlier this week Van Woerkem and Rep. Geoff Hansen, R-Hart, hosted a public forum in Hart where they discussed the role played by agriculture in the Michigan economy. Van Woerkem said the agricultural economy in the state was worth $71.3 billion in 2007, an increase of more than 12 percent from the year before.

According to Van Woerkem, Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the nation and leads the country in the production of 19 commodities.  The industry includes sectors like food processing; livestock and crop production; renewable fuels; agritourism and farm markets; and turfgrass, nursery and landscape.

Van Woerkem and Hansen were joined in Hart by representatives from Bayer CropScience, Seafood Systems, Sweetwater Local Foods Market, and Zeeland Biobased Products. The panel discussion was on new agri-businesses in Michigan, such as production of biodegradeable plastic from vegetable oil.

Van Woerkom introduced legislation in January to authorize additional funding for value-added agriculture grant projects through the Michigan Department of Agriculture's Julian-Stille grant program. Funded by the 21st Century Jobs package, the program is intended to accelerate the growth of the agriculture industry and generate jobs. 

According to Michigan State University's Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources, the agricultural economy in Michigan expanded five times faster than the growth rate of the general economy between 2006 and 2007.

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