LANSING, MI -- On a recent farm tour, lawmakers from the House Agriculture Committee got a farmer's-eye-view of two issues stunting the growth of Michigan's farm and food sector: limited in-state processing capacity and the lack of an adequate workforce.
Last week Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) partnered with House Agriculture Chair and Dist. 81 Rep. Dan Lauwers to host a two-day tour for nearly a dozen legislators—and an equal number of legislative staffers—interested in learning more about the state's agri-food system.
Thanks to the hospitality of several county Farm Bureau members and industry partners, MFB coordinated six tour stops highlighting on-farm production, labor needs and processing: Green Meadows Dairy, Elsie; Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA) Processing Plant, Ovid; Post Cereals, Battle Creek; Oswalt Family Farms, Vicksburg; Lennard Ag, Union City; and AcMoody Farms, Union City.
"I wanted members of the house agriculture committee, who haven't experienced it, to see the food that's grown in our fields is the same food they're eating on their plates," said Lauwers.
Swimming in milk
At Green Meadows Dairy, legislators toured the farm's new calf barn, where a robotic feeder allows farm workers to attend other tasks while the calves eat at leisure in a free-range environment. While the new facility meant new efficiencies on the farm that supports 80 employees and milks close to 3,300 purebred Holsteins three times a day, there's growing concern about the overflowing milk supply.
"We are swimming in milk right now," said Darcy Green, one of the family farm's managers. "We need more opportunities for processing."
That point was made even clearer when the group arrived at MMPA's Ovid processing plant, which has been running at capacity for most of 2015. At the time of the tour, incoming milk tankers faced a 4-5 hour wait to unload.
Legislators learned how the plant adds value to the fluid milk it takes in by processing it into instant nonfat dry milk and sweet cream butter, both of which are then used as ingredients in a variety of food products.
Post a major player
Next on the itinerary was a stop at the Post Cereals' facility in Battle Creek—almost 70 acres of land with 54 buildings and more than 700 employees. While the company takes in more than a dozen commodities and products to manufacture its family of cereals, the company relies on Michigan farmers for its wheat and sugar.
Rep. Charles Brunner's 96th district includes the Bay City area, and while he knew his area was a key producer of sugar beets and wheat, the tour showed him some of those raw commodities end up at Post.
"Agriculture is huge to the district I represent. The Michigan Sugar Company is headquartered right in the heart of my district," said Brunner. "It's so interesting to see where these products are actually made. I didn't even know that Post was located near Battle Creek."
Farther south, the group visited Scott and Sheryl Oswalt, who raise beef cattle and sheep at their farm in Vicksburg, and Vern and Janice AcMoody of Union City, where they raise cash crops and tomatoes for Red Gold. For both farms, shipping is a significant cost of doing business. Currently there's only one major beef processor in Michigan, and the closest tomato processing facility is in Geneva, Ind.
"Farm Bureau's member-developed policy continues to support processing opportunities and the infrastructure to do so," said MFB Legislative Counsels Rebecca Park, one of the tour's coordinators. "Any time we can add value to our farm products, or satisfy a market demand, it's beneficial for the industry and consumers."
While it wasn't intended to be a focal point, agriculture's labor needs came to the surface at nearly every tour stop. And the message hasn't changed: Michigan farms need more reliable, skilled, legal workers—domestic or otherwise—to fill thousands of demanding jobs.
Picking up on this theme was Dist. 95 Rep. Joel Johnson, who chairs the House Workforce and Talent Development Committee.
"All the people we've talked to today have mentioned it's really hard to find the employees they're looking for," said Johnson. "At the same time, we have a lot of people saying there just aren't jobs available.
"Somehow we've got to communicate there are great careers out there [in agriculture] where people can make really good living wages for themselves and their families."