Food Service & Agriculture and Government

County moves agribusiness to forefront

Report identifies opportunities to support, expand $230M industry.

April 22, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Already contributing more than $230 million in agricultural products to Michigan, Kent County now has an idea of how to better utilize its agribusiness.

The Kent County Board of Commissioners recently adopted the final report by the Agribusiness Community Work Group, which was started in May 2014 to identify, evaluate and recommend opportunities to support, expand and attract more agribusiness to the county.

Led by current Kent County board chair Jim Saalfeld, the work group was comprised of 14 local government workers and members of the private sector and community.

“Much is already being done by stakeholders within the county to support agriculture, but this group found additional key areas where stronger focus would be beneficial,” Saalfeld said in a press release. “My hope is that, by adopting the report, various organizations in West Michigan will recognize the substantive effect of the findings and use the report as support for grant applications and other activities to enhance and promote agribusiness in the region.”

The report found several areas of opportunity:

New products and markets: Kent County can enter new markets or market existing products and produce policies to encourage the development of small farms and farmers markets.

Transportation and logistics: With quality and accessibility of logistics networks crucial to agribusiness, a regionalized plan for transportation networks would help keep the county competitive.

Land and water: Kent County’s unique agriculture climates provide a solid foundation, but better environmental policies, zoning, tax valuations and land and water planning initiatives would help protect the foundation.

Labor, talent and workforce development: An aging farmer population, immigration laws and low education enrollment show there are several workforce development tools that could be useful.

Processing and technology: Incubators would help incentivize innovation for the community.

“All of these issues are critical pieces of our West Michigan economy and are intertwined and interrelated,” said Patty Birkholz, West Michigan director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

“Finding the balance of the relationships is an important element of successful economic growth in Michigan. And balancing the wise use of our Great Lakes water, waterways and land resources without abusing them is an absolute priority to the future economy of our state,” she said.

Even without the recommendations to help improve the county’s agribusiness, its 200 microclimates already make it one of the most diverse agricultural locations in the nation, with some of the best growing regions for products such as apples and peaches.

Michigan produces 43 million pounds of peaches annually, 6 percent of which come from Kent County. The state’s apple industry has an impact of $800 million annually, with 60 percent coming from the Fruit Ridge, 66 percent of which lies in Kent County.

West Michigan is also the primary blueberry producer for Michigan, which is the nation’s leading blueberry grower. Blueberries contribute $118.7 million to Michigan’s economy.

Michigan is the nation’s second-leading carrot producer and a majority are grown in West Michigan. The state produced 6.8 million pounds of carrots worth $7.6 million, according to the most recent reports.

The state’s 25 million pounds of asparagus annually is the nation’s third largest crop, with 11,000 acres dedicated to the vegetable.

Michigan is behind only California and Florida in floriculture, producing $402.7 million in flower sales.

Michigan is seventh in honey production, producing 5.1 million pounds of honey each year, accounting for $8.3 million in sales. It’s also seventh in maple syrup production with 123,000 gallons each year.

There are 850 tons of potatoes grown in Michigan, resulting in $162 million in sales annually, with the largest producer just north of Kent County.

The dairy industry represents a $14.7 billion economic impact for Michigan, and food processing represents $24.97 billion annually.

Collaboration and cooperation from players in the agribusiness industry and throughout government will be the key to helping these industries grow in Kent County, and the rest of the state, the report found.

“If we want to experience continued growth in West Michigan’s agribusiness industry, it is going to require continuous and collaborative cooperation on both the public and private sides of the table,” said Rick Chapla, vice president of strategic initiatives for The Right Place Inc., in a press release. “Working together, these voices will produce the innovative ideas and plans our agribusiness industry needs to thrive in the coming decades.”

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