Fields of Opportunity: agriculture industry grows during weak economy


As Michigan tries to put its economy on the right path, many lawmakers and business leaders are looking to a high-tech future. But one of the rising stars in the economy comes from the state's low-tech past. Agriculture has taken the back seat to manufacturing for decades.

But in recent years farming has seen significant gains. Starting today, as part of our reWorking Michigan series, we'll detour through Fields of Opportunity. WKAR's Rob South looks at how farmers have one thing that a lot of business don't these days...Money.

A fair weather stroll down any country road in mid-Michigan will inevitably bring you in close contact with one of the oldest, most diverse, and stable industries Michigan has to offer. Fields of corn, wheat and soy beans can seem so simple and banal. It's easy to forget the hard work, planning and expense that goes into it all.

Farming is Michigan's second largest economic sector. It has an annual impact of $71-billion. And while the rest of the state was fretting over the demise of the auto industry, farmers were growing more crops and selling more products.

Bob Behm manages the Commodity and Marketing department at the Michigan Farm Bureau. He says almost the entire food and agriculture system has continued to grow through the economic downturn the state has experienced since 2000.

Michigan has long enjoyed its status as one of the best agricultural states in the nation. 53-thousand farms on 10-million acres of land produce over 200 different agricultural products.

Experts say the shear size and diversity of agriculture in the state makes it less vulnerable to economic fluctuations. Paul Anderson is with Greenstone Financial Services, one of the leading lenders to farmers in Michigan. He says because the state's ag industry didn't see the economic downturn and subsequent lending freeze that devastated other industries, agricultural producers can still borrow money.

Pat Feldpausch farms 1,600 acres north-west of Lansing near Fowler. Feldpausch says even a mid-sized operation like his is a multi-million dollar business.

Infrastructure aside, the unpredictability of farming demands more financial flexibility. The weather, changes in foreign and domestic demand, shipping costs, fuel prices and just about any other variable you can think of, can easily alter a framer's profit. So, Feldpausch says, access to capital is crucial, especially when it takes about two years to see a return on any given growing season's investments.

Even with all of the variables or maybe because of them, agriculture is still seen as a safe bet in the state's economy. Farm Bureau's Bob Behm says between 2006 and 2007 the ag industry grew nearly 12% or five-times faster than the rest of the economy.

Through-out the summer as part of our re-Working Michigan series WKAR will bring you stories about the state's many Fields of Opportunity and the nearly one-million people who work and live on Michigan farms.

reWorking Michigan
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