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Multiple challenges facing Michigan agriculture; diversity, innovation will keep it successful

Russ White
Jim Byrum, Kirk Heinze

For a segment of Greening of the Great Lakes within MSU Today, Kirk Heinze talks with Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, about the challenges and opportunities facing the agriculture industry nationally and in Michigan in 2019. 

“I wish I knew,” Byrum tells Heinze. “Frankly we're facing some real challenges out here in the countryside. The trade discussions are ongoing and that's causing some upheaval. The Farm Bill is passed, but currently we're in a government shutdown, so that's not in an implementation phase at this point.

“Overall production continues to increase not just in the United States, but around the world. So we're seeing stocks around the world of commodities increase. We're seeing farmers who want to be more efficient and produce more. The problem is that commodity prices are depressed, which is kind of a result of all of that. So it's going to be a little bit of a mixed bag going into 2019.”

Byrum talks with Heinze about the recent passage of the Farm Bill and credits Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow with doing a lot of the heavy lifting to get it passed.

“Senator Stabenow has been focused on and protecting Michigan agriculture from the beginning of her political career. So it's been really interesting to watch her be our champion over the last several years as she continues to be.”

And Byrum talks about the deleterious impacts the government shutdown and the trade war are having on the agriculture industry.

“It's almost a rolling snowball going downhill. There are an awful lot of soybeans sitting in bins and piles in the United States that probably were headed to China that aren't headed there. China has come back in the market, but they're buying at very low values because the prices are so depressed. The supply chain is so backed up that there were some situations in the Dakotas in particular where some of that crop was actually left in the field. We're seeing storage filled to capacity with soybeans. So even if China and the United States agreed to go back in our corners and be happy, it would take a solid six to nine months before that supply chain was active and working again. You can't just dial 1-800 and get a new ship to show up at a port to load with soybeans in Portland.

“So even if it was solved today, it wouldn't be solved.”

Byrum shares his views on “the new NAFTA” and talks about the importance of new processing facilities coming on board in Michigan. He says Michigan’s diverse agriculture, second only to California, helps the state weather challenges better than some other states.

“There’s a great line that if folks want to pay the money, grow it. And that in Michigan is what we're able to do where as some other states can't.”

Byrum says sustainability and sustainable practices are important to farmers.

“It’s water, air, energy efficiency, and all sorts of things in sustainability. Five or 10 years ago, it was kind of a buzzword. Today, it's a way of doing business. We're seeing folks more and more concerned about their energy use, more and more concerned about their impact on water.”

Improving Michigan’s infrastructure would help the state’s agriculture industry, too, adds Byrum.

“We like to talk these days about changing how we do some things to take some of the traffic off the roads. And I'm not talking about heavy trucks, I'm talking about just overall freight movement. We don't use the water in Michigan hardly at all. We should. We need to ‘fix the damn roads,’ yes, but let's figure out how to handle all of our infrastructure and logistics more efficiently.

“I say it every year, but this will be an interesting year. The challenges we have in Michigan are intense. There are challenges in agriculture all across the country. The irony is our diversity, the innovative spirit and the creativity of Michigan producers in the industry, and the willingness to invest and to look at new market opportunities is what's going to continue to make agriculture successful in this state.”

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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