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General News    H3'ed 2/6/09

Opportunity Knocks When It Comes to a Local Food Economy

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Second, as more people prefer organic food products, organic farming represents a profitable alternative for local economic growth and sustainable agriculture since organic farmers tend to sell to local markets (within 150 miles).  More acreage is being dedicated to organic farming.  From 1997 to 2005, the number of U.S. certified organic acres grew by 63 percent, while Michigan certified organic farmland increased by 166 percent. 


In actuality, the number of industrialized farms converting to organic farming methods remains steady, but small.  Michigan’s 45,500 certified organic acres comprise only 0.4 percent of the state’s total farmland and 1 percent of the total 4,000,000 certified organic acres in the country according to the Michigan Organic Farm and Food Alliance (MOFFA).  But the potential for growth is there, especially when organic food processors/handlers are figured into the economic mix.  The USDA reports that there were over 3,000 organic-certified facilities nationwide in 2004, with 41 percent of those located on the Pacific Coast and almost 800 in California alone. 


Local organic food is admittedly more expensive than food from large, industrialized farms, however, organic advocates claim that prices in the industrialized food system are cheap because their true cost omits governmental price supports, direct payments or tax breaks and road infrastructure.


Third, colleges and universities across the country are looking for ways to support sustainable agriculture.  One way they are doing it is by supplying their cafeterias with food grown by local farmers.  These institutions teach students how to grow backyard and community gardens as well as food-related careers like urban farming.  Pothukuchi started an urban gardening program at Wayne State, which is distinguished as the largest inner-city campus with a comprehensive food systems program that is not run by an agriculture school.


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, regions like Grand Traverse in the northwestern lower peninsula, are rebuilding their local economies through agriculture by forming partnerships among businesspeople, economic developers, schools, grocers, restaurateurs and food retailers, reported the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service.  As these partnerships work to bring more food-related jobs to the area, they not only support local farmers but 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, state programs can provide yet another opportunity for local economic development, like the MDA’s Agricultural Innovation Program.  This competitive grant seeks to establish, retain, expand, attract or develop value-added processing and production operations in Michigan through innovative financing assistance to processors, agribusinesses, producers, local units of government and legislatively-authorized commodity boards in Michigan. 


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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)
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