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Small farms on the grow

Rick Coates - January 26th, 2006
It is an exciting time to be in the business of agriculture, especially if you live in Northern Michigan. The rise of the wine region, new markets for the cherry industry and a change in consumer trends are creating new markets for the small family farm operations. And this weekend hundreds will gather in Grayling for the 7th Annual Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference.
The small American farm was considered to be on the path of extinction in the 1980s, seemingly giving way to large corporate farming entities and the increase of agricultural products coming from overseas. But this trend is changing, as American consumers desire to have a more personal connection with the food they consume.
“There is no question that the consumer is desiring that connection, maybe not necessarily knowing the grower personally, but at least knowing where the food came from,” said Stan Moore, Antrim County MSU Extension director and one of the conference organizers. “The popularity of farmers’ markets points to the fact that people are preferring fresh, locally grown foods.”

HOW SMALL?
Moore said that the conference grew out of a one-day seminar on grazing issues seven years ago to a conference that now offers seminars that address technical and marketing aspects of the industry. So what defines a small farm?
“We really have stayed away from defining it by acreage or production levels. We basically leave it up to the attendee to define if they are a small farm or not,” said Moore.
Conference organizers believe that conference appeals to anyone who has an interest in farming in Northern Michigan.
“Certainly if you are thinking about starting a farm, or taking some acreage and growing a crop or raising animals, this conference is a great resource and a place to network,” said Moore. “We have several examples of people throughout Northern Michigan that have become successful in their agricultural endeavors with small plots of land.”
Moore said that he and his colleagues also try to introduce new agricultural opportunities as well.
“Steve Fouch (Benzie County Extension Director) made a presentation about the Saskatoon Berries. These berries (grown primarily in Canada) withstand frigid temperatures and Fousch felt they would be a natural here,” said Moore. “We had people attend his presentation who are now growing these berries here.”

WHAT’S NEW
Each year after the conference is over organizers survey participants as to what topics they are interested in for the future. Moore said they take the results and shape the agenda for next year based on that. The formula seems to be working as the conference is expecting 700 plus attendees this year.
Popular sessions this year will be “Going Organic in Michigan - Perceptions, Reality & Opportunities,” “Food is Medicine,” and “Food We Love - NW Michigan Food System Project.”
The conference will also have 30 plus vendors offering an array of services and products for farmers and consumers alike. Moore said the value added products like cheeses and jams are very popular items sold in the vendor area.
Conference sponsors include Michigan State University Extension County Offices of the North Region, Michigan State University— Project GREEEN, C.S. Mott Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at MSU, Michigan Organic Food & Farm Alliance—MOFFA, Northern Lakes Economic Alliance—NLEA and Michigan Food and Farming Systems.
The Small Farm Conference starts at 8 a.m. on January 21 and is at the Grayling High School. Call 231-533-8818 or visit www.web1.msue.msu.edu/iac/farmconf/#Trade_Show for a complete schedule of activities and to download a registration form.

ELSEWHERE ON THE AGRICULTURAL FRONT:
The future continues to look bright for both the cherry and wine industry in Northern Michigan. Last week several hundred cherry and grape growers gathered along with international experts at the 2006 INTERNATIONAL CHERRY CONFERENCE AND NW MICHIGAN VINEYARD SHOW to discuss the future of both industries. There were lots of smiles and both cherries and grapes had a banner growing season in 2005.
Leading experts from New Zealand, Poland, Hungary, South America, Germany and Italy shared their expertise and commented on Northern Michigan’s rise as an internationally recognized fruit growing region, especially in the area of grapes and cherries.
These experts gave glowing reviews on the wines they tasted from the region as well as the many value-added cherry products. Look for Northern Michigan’s stock to continue to rise in the wine world as the 2005 wine vintages reach maturity.

In addition to his duties as a contributing editor with the Express, Rick Coates is the spokesperson for the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association and serves on the board for the Michigan Farm Marketing and Agri-Tourism Association.





 
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