Originally published in The Detroit News:
Today, 306 million Americans have food on their table thanks to a small and noble group of professional gamblers: America’s farmers and ranchers.
Only about 1 percent of Americans operate a farm or ranch and these hardworking few not only help provide the rest of us with three meals every day, but they also form the foundation of the agricultural sector of our economy that generates one in every 12 jobs and a $20 billion trade surplus.
They do so in the face of enormous business and personal risk.
Farming requires intensive capital investments, helping make agriculture the second largest industry in Michigan. To start, buying or renting land is no cheap task, and farm equipment can run up to $500,000 for one machine. Many farmers finance these investments the way most small business owners do, by applying for credit assistance and dutifully paying it off over the years.
Once a farmer invests in the input (seed) and operating costs (equipment, irrigation, fuel) for his or her business, he or she has to wait for the crops to grow before seeing a profit. And in those months, any chance of profit is subject to the uncertainties of Mother Nature.
These brave business minds are the stewards of 922 million acres, or 40 percent of American land. They provide all of us with an affordable and secure food system, so that when we go into our local grocery store we have so many food options to choose from.
But don’t just take it from me, you really ought to go out and get to know your local farmer.
For many, the easiest way to meet your farmer is through a visit to a pumpkin patch or apple farm, a purchase from a roadside stand or farmers market. While only 4 percent of farmers sell through direct contact with their consumers, these folks put a face on farming for the rest.
During my time as secretary of agriculture, I’ve gotten to know folks like Michael and Kathy Fusilier from Manchester, a town with a population of 2,100. Mike is a sixth-generation farmer and, along with Kathy and four children, manages 1,500 acres of working lands in southern Michigan.
When Mike took over the family farm he specialized in row crops and livestock, but in 1996 he started a greenhouse and since then has expanded his fruit and vegetable production to sell at local farmers markets.
What do the residents of Manchester learn from Mike and Kathy? Well, for one, that fresh, wholesome produce can come from right around the corner. Second, how the products, their growing seasons and the care and transport moves from farm to plate.
This past September, the Fusilier Family began selling their produce to local schools. Mike proudly provides nutritious, affordable food to his neighbor’s kids; and school officials are able to invest their dollars back into the community where these kids will grow up and hopefully raise families one day.
USDA’s Economic Research Service has found that expanding local food systems increases employment and income within that community. Researchers at Michigan State University agreed, concluding that if Michigan residents were to meet the USDA dietary guidelines for fruits and vegetables by eating seasonally available, Michigan-grown produce, an estimated 2,000 jobs and $200 million in new income would be generated in-state.
I encourage you to start thinking about the farmers who serve you. Go purchase one item from a local farm or farmers market and ask that farmer a few questions.
I have a feeling that such an act won’t just stop at one purchase or one conversation. It’s the beginning of a much-needed revival of our rural communities and rural economies.
While not every family may need a lawyer or an accountant, every family needs a farmer. Do you know yours?