Michigan farmers are key players in Michigan’s progress in 2012, agriculture officials said today, following Gov.Rick Snyder’s State of the State address Wednesday night.
Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, expanded on some of the highlights in an interview this morning.
One of the state’s biggest food processors is at the heart of a new initiative called for by the governor to improve health, nutrition and the obesity rate among Michigan residents, Creagh said.
Gerber baby food’s infant and toddler study found there’s a lack of knowledge among parents about the best way to make the transition from breast milk to solid food, Creagh said. But the study also suggests that by 24 months of age children are “already imprinted by what eat for life,” Creagh said.
So producers and food processors, public health officials, and retailers have joined forces in an outreach program that takes information right to parents where they shop, to answer their questions. “For instance,” Creagh said, “if I want to feed my child a carrot, (parents may ask): ‘Is it safe? Is he old enough? How big a chunk is right?’ ”
The need to limit the amount of juice and to opt for milk with some fat content for infants rather than skim, “there’s all sorts of information, and we could help,” Creagh said, by better sharing the information already at hand at point-of-purchase displays or with nutrition experts in stores.
“I think we can make a dent in the whole obesity problem.”
It’s good for the public’s health, but good for farm production, too, Creagh said, as venues such as farmers markets in hospitals and other programs designed to increase access to locally produced produce increase options for farmers who grow fruits and vegetables.
“When Michigan farmers have only one way to sell a product, they are price takers,” Creagh said.
Jobs in agriculture
On the jobs front, the Michigan Department of Agriculture now “sits at the table to drive rural economy,” working with Michigan economic development groups to make sure that training for work aligns with jobs in agriculture that need workers.
Including agriculture in the planning for the state’s 10 new economic development regions “is a brand new development that’s very exciting,” Creagh said.
It’s important, he said, because there is not a national database that captures the food and agriculture industry, so much of Michigan’s burgeoning agriculture industry has been invisible. Agricultural jobs were lumped into generic categories, categorizing food processing as “manufacturing,” for instance, which doesn’t help tailor workers to the field’s specific needs.
Agri-tourism, wine production and other agricultural and rural needs have been hidden as well, Creagh said. “We’ve had a food processor summit and an agricultural producer summit, and we’re working with KVCC, GRCC, (and other community colleges and universities) to ask what is needed and how do we get that done,” he said. “I can help connect the dots,” Creagh said.
Internet, a new bridge to Canada
Creagh said improving Michigan’s infrastructure is essential to allowing agriculture in Michigan to reach the potential that the state’s diversity of crops, climate and availability of water make possible.
“Broadband (Internet access) is just like electrification of the rural countryside — we cannot compete in today’s world without instantaneous access to Internet,” Creagh said.
“If I have dial-up Internet access (as many rural areas do) and it takes 15 minutes to answer a customer’s request, I will not be successful,” Creagh said. “Also, I know of no young person who will stay in a community without good Internet access, so if you want to retain youth, you’d better be connected.”
A new bridge into Canada is essential as well, he explained, for current traffic and to build a stable future. “We export every third row we grow — a third of what we grow in this state — and our largest trading partner is Canada, with about $750 million in agricultural goods exported into Canada every year,” he said. But increasing efficiency for current needs is not the real issue, he said.
With a growing world population, “by 2050. we will have to double production to feed people,” he said. Congestion in East Coast shipping coasts causes containers to get hung up in New York and Newark. Canada is building a new port in Halifax. A bridge with direct access to Halifax “gives us a huge advantage,” Creagh said. “Michigan is in a spot where agriculture can be successful long term.”