Agriculture tops 1.6 billion

October 30, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Agriculture has been taking on a larger role in the economy of Michigan by default, a result of the shrinking manufacturing sector. But just how big that role is in West Michigan is revealed in a new report released today called West Michigan Agriculture: The Status and Conditions.

The 50-page report presented jointly by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, the Land Policy Institute of Michigan State University and MSU Extension measures changes in economic data about agriculture from 1997-2007, including number of farms, crop sales and acres of farmland. The study compares West Michigan to the rest of the state and has detailed assessments of the agriculture sector in each of the region’s eight counties: Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo and Ottawa.

The report was scheduled to be presented this morning to agricultural preservation board members, economic developers, farmers, government leaders and foundation representatives from the region at the MSU Extension and United Growth of Kent County offices at 775 Ball Ave. NE in Grand Rapids.

The WMSA "requested this report because we have been trying to advance farmland preservation,” said Greg Northrup, WMSA president.

“We believe we can achieve this objective through a growing and profitable agricultural sector, and this report confirms that. We thank the Land Policy Institute for funding this research through its People and Land Initiative,” Northrup said.

"We need to understand the value of our agricultural economy. I think people are going to be surprised that’s its much more substantial than maybe anybody recognized."

Northrup said agriculture is the region's second largest industry — "and with what's going on with automotive, it may be No. 1."

He said he used to be concerned that urban sprawl was “taking away farmland. In fact, the opposite is true." He said more farmland has been put in production even while farmland preservation has been a major issue in Michigan.

"If we really understood what the value of agricultural production was, then we may figure out better ways to enhance that," said Northrup — and the end result would be even more safeguards put in place to preserve productive farmland from non-agricultural development.

The eight West Michigan counties contain 14.7 percent of the state's total harvested cropland, but the agricultural sales for those counties in 2007 was 28 percent of the state total. Back in 1997, the eight counties accounted for 25.9 percent of state agricultural sales, so the West Michigan region’s agricultural strength is growing compared to the rest of the state.

The report provides specific numbers on the economic impact of agriculture in the eight-county West Michigan region over the last decade:

  • Agriculture provides $103 million in state and local tax revenue (in 2007 dollar values).

  • More than 26,000 jobs and more than $579 million in labor income come from agriculture.

  • The value of the region’s economic output from agriculture is more than $1.6 billion (in 2007 dollar values).

  • While the number and size of farms and agricultural land had declined from 1997-2002, all had equaled or surpassed 1997 totals by 2007. As of 2007, West Michigan had 9,289 farms, 1,478,253 acres of farmland, 1,011,212 acres of harvested crop land, and the average farm size was 159 acres.

“All of this shows that agriculture is an economic driver,” Northrup said. “Historically, efforts such as purchase of development rights are used to preserve farmland. We think farmland can also be preserved using economic development tools as part of the equation.”

In addition, the report breaks down figures for each county, including acres of land devoted to and income derived from each type of crop or livestock. Information is provided in tables as well as coded maps. The report shows that:

  • Three counties of the eight — Allegan, Montcalm and Ionia — have the most agricultural acreage. Allegan has 18.6 percent of the eight-county total, Montcalm 16.4 percent and Ionia 16.1 percent.

  • Allegan County ranks first in agricultural sales, with a value of $330 million in 2007 (normalized to 2000 dollar values). More than $200 million of that was in livestock and poultry products.

  • Ottawa County has the second greatest value of agricultural sales among the eight counties, with $224 million in 2007 (normalized to 2000 values). The county's ag output is due primarily to large sales in nursery and greenhouse products, plus floriculture and sod.

  • Newaygo County experienced the greatest increase in total number of farms from 1997-2007: 164. There was a decrease of average farm size, and total ag acreage increased only slightly.

The West Michigan Agriculture report is related to other efforts around the region to embrace agriculture as an economic factor. For example, GrandAction, a nonprofit downtown development group in Grand Rapids, has been exploring the concept of an urban market as a component of downtown revitalization.

Northrup said WMSA leaders hope other strategies will emerge from the West Michigan Agriculture report.

“This report will be used to develop a regional strategy to ensure the West Michigan agriculture sector remains competitive.” Northrup said. “Ultimately, we hope such a plan will help us increase local agriculture production, create additional jobs, protect existing jobs, enable farmland preservation, and generally ensure the economic viability of this increasingly critical sector of our economy.”

Northrup said the study is a baseline that will be followed by a survey of farmers and farm operators in the eight-county region to examine the barriers to successful farming operations. He said there are typically five to 10 barriers that are generally recognized by the experts at the Land Policy Institute, but the survey is intended to determine which are the top two or three so that strategies can be developed to counter them. Results will be presented to the public early next year, according to Northrup.

The Land Policy Institute of Michigan State University provides policy makers at the federal, state and local level with science-based tools and solutions that help build a better quality of life, strengthen the economy and protect the environment. The LPI ( works to encourage collaboration among land use researchers, policy makers and community organizations.

MSU Extension ( is an educational service that applies knowledge to critical needs, issues and opportunities for Michigan’s communities, families, agriculture and natural resources. It serves all 83 Michigan counties.

The West Michigan Strategic Alliance ( serves as a catalyst for regional collaboration among the businesses, institutions and governmental units serving more than 1.3 million people living in the eight-county region defined above.

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