2,500 future farmers of America are holding their annual conference at Michigan State University this week. Yesterday, some of them came to the rotunda at the state capital. They’re trying to learn how government policy affects farming. And as Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports, at least Michigan’s #2 industry will be around.
TRX1: Ashley Bernia writes and sings her own songs. She played for 300 people in the capital Rotunda.
It sounded more like a concert in San Francisco than a pep talk about Michigan agriculture. She comes from:
AX1: “Akron Michigan.”
TRX2: That’s about 20 miles east of Bay City. Ashley describes what her farm looks like.
AX3: “Tractors. Tractors everywhere. Tractors and family. All my uncles work on the farm. It’s just been there since I was little.”
TRX3: Ashley is now a high school senior. And a member of Future Farmers of America. She’ll take the business and political skills she’s learned to Northwood University this fall. She got a scholarship to go there. But she plans to come back to the farm.
AX4: “I stay right at home. I like Caro and Akron. I like small town communities with big acreage that I can run around on four wheelers and mud bog. I don’t like cities or shopping or any of that.”
TRX4: Scott Bernia is Ashley’s dad. Their farm has been in the family 150 years.
AX5: “She went to the farm with me. Time and experience. Hoed every year since I was 8 years old. By hand.” Sugar beets, dry beans, soy beans, wheat, corn.”
TRX5: Most farmers have to wade through dozens of problems. Suburbanization in the last 20 years has been a big one. Farmers have lost the help of Tractor supply and feed stores. They’ve gained the headache of shopping malls and subdivisions whose residents run into their tractors and complain about smells. Non-farmers still want to buy up farmland.
AX6: “Outside investors driving up land prices right now. The values are higher than what the actual commodities will support.”
TRX6: Suburbanization was driving them up too. Farmers haven’t been able to make enough money from growing corn or potatoes to pay for the land. An acre to grow crops has cost the same as an acre to build houses. So if you’re a farmer with land you’re pressured to sell it. But if you’re a farmer without land you can’t afford it. The financial meltdown has halted some subdivisions and brought a new problem.
AX7: “It’s just people cashing out of the stock market looking for a safe asset. There’s only so much land that will always be there. Diversifying their portfolios is what I think is going on.”
TRX7: Scott Bernia is not sure exactly how much an acre of land in the thumb is selling for right now. But he knows it is selling.
AX8: “There’s gonna be a farm sold next week. I’ll have a better idea. Close to 3,000 if I had to guess.
TRX8: And how does a farmer feel the pressure to sell his land that’s been in the family for 5 generations?
AX9: “Depends on how old you are. When you get closer to retirement it’s a great thing. If you’re young it’s tough.”
TRX9: After the applause for Ashley Bernia, the 200 other Future Farmers of America awarded Senator Patty Birkholz. She’s pushed legislation on zoning and water withdrawl that farmers appreciate.
AX10: “I grew up in Fennville for anybody who knows Fennville. Great ag country. If we didn’t grow it we ate it. So I grew up picking fruit on my uncle’s farm. So I’ve had a lot of experience in agriculture. But most importantly, we need to toot our horn a little bit more.”
TRX10: Before the crash, The auto industry was worth about $80 billion in Michigan. Agriculture was ranked number 2 at $60 billion. Now while the auto industry crumbles, Ag has grown to $63 billion.
AX10: “You know you are the shining star in Michigan’s economy. Because almost every other sector has either stayed at the level they are at or they’ve gone down this year. And ag showed a growth rate and that’s incredible.”
TRX11: It would really be incredible if young people who can no longer get jobs in car factories started coming out to farms, not to build homes, but to work the land.
For Michigan Now, I’m Chris McCarus in Lansing.
Audio MP3: Future farmers at State Capitol 2009