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Bridge Gap between East/West Mich and Save Farms

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Friday, February 13, 2009

INTRO: There’s a common perception that Southeast Michigan doesn’t need West Michigan. Farms don’t need cities and vice versa. Farm and city advocates got together recently in Lansing to wrestle with those ideas so the economy can improve. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.

TRX1: Farm Bureau organized the conference at the Lansing Center. About 200 farmers paid $75 a head for workshops on windmills and talks from political operatives. Bill Rustem has been a power broker in state government for 30 years.

AX1: “We ought to be encouraging the principles of smart growth. And that is reusing the areas that already have infrastructure developed. And in a lot of places it starts with our cities.”

TRX2: Rustem says Michigan should protect its land based industries, agriculture, forestry and tourism. He says smart growth is a way of looking at the world. And it can improve how the world looks at us.

AX2: “We also know that without a healthy central city we’re not gonna be able to attract the entrepreneurs, 25-34 year olds that Michigan needs. We rank 47th in attracting 25-34 year olds. Well that can’t go on. We can’t be successful as a state if we allow that to go on.”

TRX3: Rustem encouraged the audience full of farmers to go to downtown Detroit. Go to a ball game. Make a day of it. He says spending a few dollars in Detroit can help Detroiters buy food from farmers. And he says farmers should want to keep Detroiters in the city because they waste farmland and tax dollars when they move out to the country. Matt Hehl heard Bill Rustem speak.

AX3: “Being a farmer and a commissioner from the west side of the state I took a little concern or offense to the speaker earlier that said we need to go to Detroit and prop Detroit up because people think of Michigan they think of Detroit. I don’t know where that comment can come from. If it wasn’t for the West side, Wisconsin would have took us over.”

TRX4: Mistrust and stereotypes linger. But the 80 billion car industry is faltering while the 60 billion farm industry is holding steady. All of Hehls fellow commissioners in Ottawa County are republicans. No democrats. Saying no to taxes too, is common, except for farmland preservation. Hehl wants to tax real estate developers.

AX4: “You know you start selling land for, you know you get into the thousands of dollars per square foot in some of these shopping malls and what have you. I think there’s room for him to pay a few bucks and that all earmarks, goes into a farmland preservation fund. And whammo. Hundreds of millions of dollars very quickly would come for just a 1 or 2 % tax. We haven’t been colorful enough. You go to Pennsylvania and Ohio they’ve got cell phone taxes, cigarette taxes, cable tv taxes. Lancaster County PA is almost a mirror image of Kent County Michigan.”

TRX5: Farmland preservation advocates like Hehl say yeah maybe we’ll help out the cities on the other side of the state. But fund our projects too. He suggests a $100 million fund that pays farmers to keep their land in agriculture forever. He calls it peanuts compared to Michigan’s $40 billion budget.

AX5: “like I said, there’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle. There’s a lot of different ways to fund it. It’s kind of that first step off the high dive. But I think once we do the first one they’ll fall like dominos after that.”

TRX6: The main attraction at the Farm Bureau event was Bill Ballenger. He grew up in Flint and went to Princeton and Harvard. He was a republican state rep, state senator and a member of the Ford Administration in Washington.

AX6: “The democrats are really not as wild eyed and crazy and communist as a lot of people, perhaps some of them in agriculture, think they are.”

TRX7: Ballenger writes a newsletter called Inside Michigan Politics. He says democrats have a big tent. They like to be seen as inclusive. Including the new vice chair of the house agriculture committee.

AX7: “I mean Mike Huckleberry up in Montcalm County, part of Ionia. They like nothing better than to feel like they have a good relationship with the agriculture community and having farmers say good things about them. Like gee I know Mike Huckleberry. He’s really a pretty good guy and he’s cast this vote and he introduced this bill.”

TRX8: In 2002, Jennifer Granholm followed Michigan farmers on a tour of preserved farmland in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 2003, her Land Use Leadership Council had several policies for stopping sprawl and saving farms. Bill Ballenger is not betting on the Governor picking up the ball she dropped. But he says other democrats might.

AX8: “Some of them, believe it or not, want to hear from you and would be more glad to develop a relationship with you than a lot of republicans who come from agricultural areas and in some cases take agriculture and farmers for granted. They think they’re republicans, they’re conservative. They’re gonna vote for me. And they just don’t listen.”

TRX9: Michigan’s population isn’t growing. It’s shifting. Most legislators used to come from cities. But as of about 10 years ago, most legislators have come from townships. Ballenger points out most of the townships are run by republicans and he says again, they’re not helping farmers.

AX9: “I mean look at counties like Livingston. Look at counties like Eaton west of where you are today: Lansing. Those counties are really growing fast. And they’re not growing because people are moving out there to farm. They’re moving away from the city. Just get out of the city. Get out of Lansing. Get out of Detroit.”

TRX9: A fund to buy out land development rights would be easiest. $100 million dollars a year could preserve 100,000 acres. That would be 50 times more than what The Granholm Administration has allocated. If the state won’t just put money in a pot, then Bill Ballenger suggests asking voters.

AX9: “You know there have been bond issues on the ballot in the last decade or so. There have been conservation and cleanup. And they’ve been bigger than $100 million. That’s not really very big.”

NS elevator.

TRX10: At the state capital, the freshman class of legislators is still figuring out how to ride the elevators. Mike Huckleberry is the new vice chair of the ag committee Ballenger was talking about. 6 weeks ago he was working everyday at Huckleberry’s in Greenville. The restaurant he owns. Farmers have already trotted into his office to get his attention. Huckleberry says he’s giving it.

AX10: “It’s become one of the strongest economic vehicles we have in this state. You know it’s always been one two and three, autos, agriculture and tourism. I don’t know where autos are right now. It may be that agriculture is number one.”

TRX10: Does Huckleberry know what a PDR program is? purchase of development rights? Um. Not yet. But he says he supports saving farmland.

AX11: “Well I think we always should have saved it whether it’s number one or number two. Agriculture if you think about it is a matter of national security. We have to eat. That’s how we live.”

For Michigan Now, I’m Chris McCarus in Lansing.

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