The unemployment numbers in Northwestern Lower Michigan remain high. In December, the counties covered by the Grand Vision saw unemployment rates as high as 13 percent in Benzie and 12.5 percent in Wexford.
But anyone who lives in our rural communities of Northern Michigan doesn’t need statistics to know there are a lot of people suffering in our region due to a lack of work. We see it every day in our communities, in our neighborhoods, and in our homes.
The Michigan Land Use Institute believes we can do better, and one way, we believe, to lower unemployment is through agriculture. My co-worker, Jim Sluyter, is kicking off a new program that specifically targets low-income families for help in getting started in farming. The program allows applicants to enroll in Individual Development Accounts, or IDAs, and these bank accounts provide for a two to one match in funds from federal and private dollars. So, for example, if you are below a certain poverty level, and if you enroll in the program and save up to $1,000 of your own money, it is matched at a 2:1 ratio with federal funds and private funds from Cherry Republic. That means a farmer who saves $1,000 will end up with a savings account of $3,000 to put toward starting a farm or making upgrades to an existing agri-business.
“Even these modest funds can provide the boost that is needed for a new grower to get started, or enhance a fledgling business,” Mr. Sluyter said.
Programs like this are important because they help to support local, sustainable farming. This push to look to agriculture for job development and career training is also part of a broader state movement to rebuild Michigan’s economy. Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon and Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, recently published a compelling op-ed piece in the Detroit Free Press that documents the huge role agriculture can play in the development of our state’s economy.
“Rising demand for food, water and energy security offers Michigan incalculable opportunities for prosperity in a global economy that will reward those who develop, apply and supply bio-based technologies,” they said, adding that “agriculture can anchor a more robust value chain to benefit every corner of Michigan.”
Jay Akridge, Dean of Purdue University’s College of Agriculture, calls farming “one of the hottest job-creating sectors of our economy.”
“This Midwest area, once dubbed the “Rust Belt,” is becoming the breeding ground for new “green” agriculture-related jobs,” Mr. Akridge said in another op-ed published in September.
This potential for job growth is certainly getting the attention of Gov. Rick Snyder and his economic development team. And, a key to continued growth is to find new, young talent to go into food and farming businesses, which is one of the missions of the Agriculture and Food System Sector Alliance that we are proudly participating in.
At MLUI, it’s all about being local, and we encourage people to think abut the IDA account program as a great way to start getting people farming. At the same time, we can give some of our residents a chance to escape from the cycle of poverty, support fresh local foods in our schools, and be part of a growing food revolution that relies on local produce and supports our ag economy.