Traverse City News and Events

How Northern Michigan Inspired A $4 Million Agricultural Program In The Governor's Budget Proposal

By Craig Manning | Feb. 11, 2024

There were a few headline-worthy items on the table last Wednesday when Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer unveiled her $80.7 billion budget proposal. From plans for universal preschool and free community college to investments in clean energy, the budget has already generated significant discussion. Less immediately noticeable was a proposed $4 million allocation to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) to establish a new “Farm to Family Program.” But according to MDARD Director Tim Boring, that program stands to have a profound impact on ag-centric regions like northern Michigan – and was even inspired in part by northern Michigan success stories.

In its executive budget proposal for fiscal years 2025 and 2026, the governor’s office describes MDARD’s new Farm to Family Program as an effort “to support regenerative farming, agriculture supply chains, and promote Michigan food products in the home through a cooperative approach which will generate direct economic impacts.” Boring calls the program MDARD’s “the top-line item” in this year’s budget, and touts it as an opportunity to build a more secure, sustainable, and self-sufficient food economy in Michigan.

“I look at [the Farm to Family Program] as a way to link a lot of the different pieces of the agricultural system in our state, so they function better together,” Boring tells The Ticker. “We don’t always think of agriculture as a collaboration, or as a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ kind of effort, but we’re doing that here.”

The goal, Boring explains, is to create a food economy in Michigan that can give consumers better access to Michigan-grown and Michigan-made products – perhaps in place of more processed foods or foods imported from elsewhere. By Boring’s estimation, creating a system where “everything talks to one another” more efficiently – from the growers to the supply chain infrastructure to the end consumers – will mean more statewide buy-in for Michigan agriculture and everything it produces.

“We want to be making sure that, in underserved communities across Michigan – rural areas or urban areas – we’re getting Michigan food on family plates in a way that that feeds families,” Boring says. “We see that as an investment in our long-term future healthcare costs in the country. And of course, we also see it as a way to drive demand for food products that are made here in Michigan."

If this focus on localized food economies sounds familiar, that’s because northern Michigan has been investing in that space for decades. Last summer, The Ticker reported on the release of Shared Abundance: Lessons in Building Community around Locally Grown Food. The book, published by Traverse City’s Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, is a sprawling 192-page exploration of northern Michigan’s thriving local food economy and how it’s evolved over the course of the past two decades. By filling Shared Abudance with success stories about local growers, farm markets, CSA programs, restaurants, and retailers, Groundwork Center intended the book as a case study for how other areas might do the same.

According to Boring, that book and northern Michigan’s many agricultural triumphs were inspirations for the Farm to Family program.

“I see there being a real opportunity here for the governor to demonstrate some leadership and vision, just by using the model of what's been done in places like Traverse City,” Boring says. “We can take your local example and use it as a model for how we replicate this kind of work across the state, the region, the country. It quickly becomes big, aspirational work, but places like Traverse City have proven that focusing on this kind of thing makes a difference. So, let's continue to invest in our food economy and build on it by following the success of what your region up there has done.”

Jeff Smith, Groundwork’s communications director, says he and his team weren’t aware MDARD was looking at Traverse City and Shared Abundance as rubrics for a major state program, but tells The Ticker he’s “blown away” to know that northern Michigan is being used as a shining example.

“Obviously, the bones of [the Farm to Family program] are completely what the book is about,” Smith says. “To know they looked at our region and said, ‘Hey, there’s something here; let’s put some money behind it,’ that’s just totally amazing.”

Groundwork itself has been at work on a project – funded by a $900,000 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant – to take the strategies that have worked in the Grand Traverse area and use them to build similar food economy networks, marketing systems, distribution channels, and infrastructure in 16 other counties along the Lake Michigan coast. It’s slow-moving work, Smith says, especially considering that it took the Grand Traverse region “20 years to get where we are now.” But he’s confident that the relationships Groundwork is building between various stakeholders will eventually prove transformative.

As for the rollout of the Farm to Family program, Boring doesn’t want to count his chickens before they hatch: State budgets go through a lot of changes between the governor’s proposal and the final adoption, and MDARD won’t know until summer if the $4 million for its new program made the final cut.

With that said, Boring says he’s committed to “doing a lot of talking and listening to farmers, distributors, processors, and retail outlets” in the coming months to get a better sense of what they need out of the Farm to Family program to build a better food system. And even though northern Michigan is the example the program is looking to replicate, Boring stresses that the listening sessions – and the benefits of the new initiative – will absolutely extend to the Grand Traverse area.

Says Boring: “The Traverse City area is already a wonderful example of people caring about how and where their food comes from. But I also think it is exceedingly well poised to be a recipient of greater economic activity by having more opportunities through the ag system we're trying to create. So, MDARD is going to be doing a lot of talking to the farmers, distributors, processors, retail outlets and asking: What do you need to build stronger food systems in your communities? And then we’ll take that feedback and use it to come up with comprehensive, thoughtful approaches that work on addressing barriers at multiple levels.”

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