Agricultural development in Michigan alive growing

July 15, 2011
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While we are still playing a wait-and-see game regarding the future of brownfield, historic preservation and other urban economic incentive programs, there is an area of certainty — and growth — in our state that bears noting: agriculture and rural development.

Typically, the manufacturing and urban agendas grab most of the headlines, but agriculture, renewable energy, tourism and other sectors comprise several important cylinders of Michigan’s economic engine. Tourism and agriculture are, in fact, Michigan’s second and third largest sectors. And that part of the engine is humming along nicely. The governor is committed to those sectors, and that commitment is bearing fruit.

Early in his term, Gov. Rick Snyder took the step of re-aligning and re-charging almost all governmental departments. Of particular interest for much of the state is that the Michigan Department of Agriculture became the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

This was more than just a rebranding of the MDA and the yeoman work that it was performing to jumpstart rural economies. It focused the department’s efforts on ensuring that our state’s economic recovery had the broad base necessary to ensure long-term sustainability.

ARD Director Keith Creagh has been crisscrossing the state, seeking out opportunities to fulfill the department’s rural development mission and strengthen our economic recovery. In April, he addressed more than 200 industry representatives at the Michigan Food Processors’ Summit as part of a panel that also included directors for the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources.

The panel discussed strategies for growth, including the economic development tools available to facilitate rural and agriculture, and those that will be required to ensure that environmental regulations can be revamped so that environmental protection and economic growth are not seen as being mutually exclusive.

More recently, Creagh visited a group of food processing facilities in southwestern Michigan to see firsthand the results of the department’s recent economic development successes. Each of the businesses that he visited had either recently finished, or was in the process of completing, significant capital improvement projects to accommodate their customers’ growing demands.

All told, those businesses had developed several hundred thousands of square feet of new space, and hired thousands of full-time employees. With the assistance of the MDA, and now the ARD, those businesses have seen significant increases in sales. What’s more is that the ARD worked diligently with each of the food processors to facilitate the purchase of locally grown and raised ingredients, including pork, turkeys, beef, cherries, asparagus, corn and more. With the assistance of the ARD, many of these companies are working on addressing common issues, such as regional wastewater disposal needs that they share.

The ARD’s economic development does not start and finish with the traditional agricultural sector, either. Creagh recently visited Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is fast becoming the home of a renewable energy cluster. He met with several entities that are in the process of developing bio-fuel manufacturing facilities, making good economic use of the “green gold” that historically would simply have gone to waste.

In keeping with the governor’s overall plan for our state’s comeback, each of the examples noted above contributes to the theme of developing industry “clusters.” This allows industries to collaborate, develop synergies, share best practices and attract talent. The entrepreneurial spirit knows no bounds, and it is clear that the ARD plays a key role in ensuring that no good idea goes to waste.

Is there still progress to be made to strengthen our future? Surely. With the governor’s commitment to the rural and agricultural sectors, and a strong team in place, Michigan will continue to make strides to regain its former glory.

Kurt Brauer is a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP and co-chair of the firm’s Economic Incentives Group. He can be reached at

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