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Fields of Opportunity: Farming going local, going small

By Rob South, WKAR News

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wkar/local-wkar-928190.mp3

East Lansing, MI –
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Entrepreneurship is among the key factors many people believe will get Michigan's economy back on track. Small companies with fewer than 50 employees make up a significant part of the state's economy.

A lot of attention has been paid to moving the economy from manufacturing, to information technologies. But some people are finding their futures are rooted in the state agricultural past.

AUDIO:

On a small farm a few miles north of Lansing, Sue Spagnuolo tends to about two dozen goats. She is the owner and only full-time human employee of Dolce Vita Dairy. Spagnuolo is among a growing number of people who make their living working small farms. She said after years of working with cattle and horses she needed something that was more manageable. So she turned to the Product Center at Michigan State University which helps agricultural entrepreneurs find markets for their goods.

"I was working with the MSU Product Center on another project and looking for something to do here, and it just kind of fell into place," She said. "There weren't many goat cheese producers in Michigan. I researched some food articles and programs, and I thought this could really be fun."

Agriculture is Michigan's second largest economic sector with more than a million workers. The Michigan Farm Bureau's Bob Bohme siad it's also one of the fastest growing industries in the state with micro-farms like Dolce Vita helping lead the way. He says renewed interest in buying local food is driving the growth.

"We're seeing a huge expansion in the number of outlets," Boehm said. "The farmers' markets in the little towns or in the big cities, where people want to be able to go and buy fresh produce and flowers and other things from the green industry. Not just edibles but also the nursery, the flower crops. So there's access to that."

Another factor in the small-farm boom is basic economics. Boehm says starting a small farm is relatively inexpensive. He said entrepreneurs don't need millions of dollars and thousands of acres to be successful.

And as large farming operations become more profitable, some mid-sized farms are also seeing value in downsizing.

Matt Birbeck is with the Product Center at Michigan State University. Birbeck said a lot of mid-sized farmers are coming to him for solutions after they've been priced out of their old market.

"I'm getting squashed by the commodity guys these days, because the pricing is getting lower." Boehm said. "Therefore, my alternative is to go out of business or maybe start a business that creates cheese or creates ice cream or creates butter. So it's adding value to a commodity crop when I put myself further down the supply chain."

That was just the recipe for Spagnuolo, who now produces Chevre, a French goat cheese similar to cream cheese. Spagnuolo said it's hard work but it suits her lifestyle very well.

"My comfort zone is the barn and the kitchen," said Spagnuolo. "I've always loved food; I've always loved the barn. I've spent my life in the agriculture industry with livestock. So this has been a good fit; it's just been great. It's something I can handle on my own yet still have fun working in the kitchen with food."

Spagnuolo can make about 60 pounds of Chevre a week. She said selling it to gourmet cooks, at farmer's markets and a few retail outlets in mid-Michigan gets her just enough to keep her on the farm.


reWorking Michigan
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan

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