Opportunity knocks: A local food economy
By Olga Bonfiglio
Special to the Michigan Citizen
The local food movement has the potential to create jobs, develop small business entrepreneurships and keep precious dollars in the community.
“As manufacturing jobs decrease, the relative value of activities in the community’s food sector increases,” says Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, Wayne State University professor of urban planning.
This is especially good news for Michigan, whose economic engine has been dependent on manufacturing, which pulls in $68.4 billion annually compared to agriculture’s $63.7 billion, the state’s second largest industry.
The costs of today’s factory food system outweigh its benefits. An energy-intensive monoculture, it uses huge amounts of water and chemicals for herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers. Tons of animal waste products also accumulate and pollute land, water and air. Most foods travel an average 1,300 miles. Fruits and vegetables, in transit for seven-14 days, lose both freshness and taste.
Our food system should revolve around small, polycultural farms that practice sustainable agriculture, preserve regional biodiversity and help build local economies. This is already happening in many ways.
First, people are turning to local food networks like community gardens, food co-ops, Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets.
Second, more people are opting for organic food as a healthy and sustainable alternative — and farmers are catching on. From 1997 to 2005, Michigan certified organic farmland increased by 166 percent, according to the Michigan Organic Farm and Food Alliance (MOFFA). However, these 45,500 acres of certified farmland comprise only 0.4 percent of our state’s total farmland. Organic farmers tend to sell to local markets (within 150 miles) and the potential for growth is there, especially when organic food processors and handlers are figured into the economic mix.
Third, college students across the country are pushing their institutions to support sustainable agriculture by having their cafeterias use food grown by local farmers. Students are also learning how to garden and to consider careers like urban farming. Pothukuchi started an urban garden program at WSU, which is distinguished as the largest inner-city campus with a comprehensive food systems program that is not run by an agriculture school. MSU agriculture students are growing food to supply one of the university’s residence halls.
Some areas of the state are actively recruiting youth for community-based farming careers through hands-on learning situations. The 4-H Entrepreneurs Club in Kalkaska County has youth pick and buy produce at area farms in order to sell it at five different farmers markets. There are similar programs in Detroit and Monroe County.
Fourth, Grand Traverse is rebuilding its local economy by forming partnerships among businesspeople, economic developers, schools, grocers, restaurateurs and food retailers. As these partnerships work to bring more food-related jobs to the area, they not only support local farmers; they also protect precious income-producing farmlands from being overtaken by urban sprawl.
The Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) speculates that the Grand Traverse region could stimulate more job growth and entrepreneurship by supporting its 2,229 farms through cooperative efforts like the Food and Farm Network. Moreover, a 2006 MLUI study found that farms could generate 1,889 new jobs across the state and $187 million in new personal income by selling more fresh produce locally.
Fifth, the state can sponsor local economic development with programs like the MDA’s Agricultural Innovation Program. This competitive grant seeks to establish, retain, expand, attract or develop value-added processing and production operations through innovative financing assistance to processors, agribusinesses, producers, local units of government and legislatively-authorized commodity boards in Michigan. Michigan Select is another program that promotes the state’s products with labeling stickers.
Michigan residents spend $26 billion on food with only 10 percent coming from the state’s farmers, according to a 2001 MLUI study.
“Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture in the United States [with 150 crops]. We could add another $2.58 billion to the state’s economy if we increased production of local food by another 10 percent,” says Pothukuchi.
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, MI.