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There are agriculture-related challenges for 2018, but still much to celebrate in Michigan

Russ White
Kirk Heinze, Dianne Byrum, Jim Byrum

Despite the projected continuation of lower commodity prices for farmers, Jim and Dianne Byrum remain very optimistic about the agricultural sector, especially in Michigan.

Jim, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, and Dianne, partner and co-founder of Byrum and Fisk Advocacy Communications, recently joined me to discuss several  key agricultural issues that will be front and center in 2018.

“Trade is a huge issue,” says Jim. “Whatever we produce agriculturally we have to export a very large percentage of it. NAFTA has been under attack since day one of the Trump White House. Because of the rhetoric coming from this administration, some of our most trusted trade partners are looking elsewhere for product even though NAFTA hasn’t actually been changed yet.”

The good news, Jim adds, is that “the broad industry of agriculture is fully united that we have to maintain and expand trade opportunities, not limit them.”

In addition to trade-related concerns, Dianne says “water quality will continue to be a huge issue in 2018, especially the health and safety of drinking water in our communities.”  Another pressing, water safety and management problem is the need for phosphate level reductions in the Great Lakes Basin, especially in Lake Erie, and the growing demand for more research on soluble phosphorous, Dianne says. 

An irritating, on-going problem with which most of us in Michigan are quite familiar is decaying transportation infrastructure—roads, bridges, railways.  “Markets are created by the ability to get product to the market,” Jim says.  “If we can do that efficiently, we can attack and secure markets that we might not otherwise be able to.”

With a plethora of changes underway at the Environmental Protection Agency, Dianne wants assurances that EPA decisions and policies “continue to be based on the best science available.”  She also wants to see on-going EPA support of renewable energy “because we have found that wind and solar are making better and better economic sense as well as environmental sense.”  She points to Michigan’s bipartisan energy legislation as a paradigm example of how to foster the steady expansion of renewables—an expansion she views as the inevitable wave of the future. 

Jim acknowledges that depressed commodity prices have hurt many agricultural producers in recent years, especially in the dairy industry.  And he does not envision much relief in 2018, barring some major, weather-related problems in other parts of the world.   

On the flip side, he believes that many producers who banked profits during better times are well positioned to survive this down cycle.  And he points to the recent, significant expansion in hog, milk and soybean processing facilities as reasons to be optimistic about Michigan agriculture’s future. 

For Dianne, reasons for optimism include research that shows millennials eat about 30 percent of their meals in restaurants and have a growing fondness for craft beverages. “We’re taking a close, analytical look at food trends and how Michigan can play into that and take advantage of our agricultural diversity. A great example is the growing number of hops producers.  So it’s pretty exciting to be in agriculture in spite of some of the challenges.”

“All in all,” Jim concludes, “I maintain we’re in better shape in Michigan than many other states. Producers are in better shape and that again speaks to our great agricultural diversity and the creativity, entrepreneurship and determination of our farmers.”

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 94.5 FM and AM 870.

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