MDARD director briefed by specialty crop leaders on issues facing food producers

Potato Growers of Michigan (PGMI) Manager Dr. Kelly Turner joined other specialty crop commodity executives in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, Dec. 6 as part of a roundtable discussion held by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD).

MDARD Director Dr. Tim Boring hosted the discussion in conjunction with the Great Lakes Expo, as an opportunity to hear from agriculture leaders, farmers, processors, and others on what MDARD can do to make a real difference in addressing the challenges facing the ag industry.

To prepare for the meeting, Michigan’s specialty crop commodity executives and grower leaders met virtually in mid-November to discuss the many issues facing Michigan’s specialty crop industry (blueberries, apples, cherries, horticulture, asparagus, carrots, onions, potatoes, and Michigan Vegetable Council). The group brainstormed a list of 26 issues of concern to the industry. The group utilized consensus to prioritize the top six issues and then came up with suggestions on how the department can assist the industry from the many modes of action at the director’s disposal. 

Michigan’s specialty crop industry executives presented the next six items.

The first was concern about access to water. While we say that Michigan is the most diverse agricultural state with access to water, decisions being made regarding large quantity permits call this into question and are stifling agriculture’s ability to grow and address climate risks. 

Additionally, the industry is very concerned about the more stringent wastewater treatment standards that are being required by EGLE as permit renewals happen. One facility described as going from bucket measurement to teaspoon measurement. The industry needs common sense permit parameters. 

Thirdly, Michigan’s specialty crop industry thinks there are opportunities to get more Michigan grown specialty crops into more places in the state like restaurants, foodservice, grocery stores, schools and institutions.

The fourth challenge is the lack of cold storage and freezer storage space is causing hardship in strengthening the supply chain. An adequate amount of these types of facilities is very important to maintaining some balance between fresh and processed products that give growers options on where to take their crops. 

The last two issues are closely related. Michigan’s specialty crop industry is concerned about labor availability across the supply chain from growers to packers and processors. 

Lack of labor is exacerbated by additional regulations that appear imminent and will impact migrant and seasonal worker housing. The state is seeing a housing shortage, and this is especially devastating in rural areas.

In addition to the top six issues, the specialty crop commodity groups also presented the director with the list of additional 20 prioritized issues for the directors’ consideration.

Jamie Zmitko-Somers, MDARD’s Agriculture Development Bureau Director, discussed the United States Department of Agriculture’s Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure (RFSI) Grant Program and other grant funding opportunities. Michigan was awarded $10 million under the RFSI program. The department used this opportunity to gather input on grant programs to set criteria and priorities for the funding.

Director Boring thanked attendees for their ongoing partnership and looks forward to continuing to work together to tackle challenges impacting Michigan’s farmers and commodities as we strive to be a more resilient and diverse agriculture state.

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