Agriculturally Speaking...State Infrastructure Project a Key to Michigan Agriculture's Future

 

By Jessy J. Sielski, MDARD Deputy Public Information Officer

Increasingly more difficult to achieve in today’s political climate are long-term strategies designed for the greater good—both for citizens and for multiple, diverse industries. However, when Governor Snyder released the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission report last month, it was quite clear that Michigan’s ambitions were exceptional. And when the coordinated, comprehensive plan to rebuild Michigan’s infrastructure comes to fruition, the state will secure its position as one of the nation’s best states in which to live and do business, particularly for those in the food and agriculture industry.

The report includes more than 100 recommendations to address the state’s infrastructure challenges, under the main categories of energy, transportation, water, and communications. Among the numerous areas of focus—and of particular interest to the state’s food and agriculture industry—are roads; water and drains; and access to high speed internet.

In an official statement, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Director Jamie Clover Adams said, “These recommendations are the first step in putting a better foundation in place to keep Michigan’s rural communities and food and agriculture growing. Through targeted infrastructure investment, we set the stage for new food and agriculture value-added opportunities and additional jobs in rural Michigan.”

Clover Adams was one of a select number of people chosen to represent the state’s agriculture community on the Infrastructure Commission since its inception in April 2016.

Michigan Farm Bureau Board of Directors member Ben LaCross, who also represented the agriculture community on the Infrastructure Commission said, “This report is the first of its kind in the nation—a blueprint to guide our state toward best-in-class infrastructure for the next 30 to 50 years. In it we addressed things farmers and rural communities really need, like improved road funding and expanded broadband capabilities. Those two issues are key to enhancing Michigan’s agriculture sector as it seeks to expand its markets for agricultural products, and as rural residents look for more opportunities to conduct business online.”

In a recent podcast, Clover Adams and MDARD Environmental Stewardship Division Director Jim Johnson discuss the report and what the endeavor could mean for Michigan’s booming food and agriculture industry.  

Clover Adams discussed the heyday of American infrastructure by saying, “We were the envy of the world in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s because of our river transportation and our railroads and our roads, and now we’re not anymore. And why is that? It’s because we haven’t put the dollars into that infrastructure to keep it up. And other countries have leapfrogged ahead of us.”

To most Michiganders, the words “infrastructure” and “roads” are synonymous. This also holds true for those in the state who rely on the food and agriculture industry for their livelihoods. One particularly noteworthy reason for this, as Johnson explains, is because of Michigan’s geography. Being a peninsular state surrounded by clean, plentiful water is clearly an asset, particularly for food growers and producers, but it does present some logistical challenges. As Johnson explains, “As a peninsular state, we really have one way in and out of the state of Michigan. So, obviously, quality roads for the movement of farm-related materials are extremely important.”

To address roads and bridges, the commission is looking to invest an additional $1.6 billion in state highway and bridge infrastructure annually, which would be expected to create or sustain 18,000 jobs, increase the gross state product by $1.5 billion annually, increase real  personal  income  by  $1.1  billion  annually,  and  decrease  economic  loss  due  to fatalities. This would be paid for through new revenue from state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

There is little argument that Michigan is a major player in American agriculture; however, Michigan’s food and agriculture businesses—as well as the state’s political leaders—recognize that there are tremendous financial opportunities in food processing, also known as “value added.” To take advantage of these opportunities, however, Michigan must first address capacity and environmental issues through infrastructure improvement, particularly regarding water and drains.

“Drain maintenance…is extremely important within Michigan,” said Johnson. “Much of Michigan is very wet—wet in the spring, wet in the fall. That makes it difficult to get onto fields for planting and getting crops off fields at the other end of the season. And so, being able to handle storm water within the agricultural context is extremely important.”

“We need good water and good sewer for these processing activities,” added Clover Adams. “Processing food takes a lot of water and creates a lot of waste water. Many of our rural communities weren’t built for this kind of volume, and so we need those kinds of infrastructures in our rural places so we can process those products and add value in our rural places.”

To address wastewater and drains, the commission is proposing a number of recommendations, many of which focus on coordinating efforts between state and local agencies, as well as updating the Michigan Drain Code to (1) remove inconsistencies and implement performance-based mechanisms, (2) help jurisdictions collaborate to manage storm water on a watershed basis, and (3) allow for performance-based (rather than prescriptive) incentives to encourage property owners to achieve water quality outcomes.

In addition to roads, water, and drain systems, another critical piece of infrastructure—which is often underestimated by those in urban areas—is access to high speed internet throughout the state and the role it plays in modern agriculture and food businesses.

“There’s a lot of high tech farming today that actually requires broadband,” said Johnson. “And this high tech farming, or site-specific farming, requires people to have a lot of very specific information where they’re at on that field, on the globe. Having access to broadband actually allows for a tremendous amount of efficiencies within the ag industry for planting, harvesting, and any other aspect of day-to-day operations…in terms of their decision-making abilities.”

Clover Adams added, “What I really appreciated about this report was that, for the first time that I’ve ever seen, there was an admission that 18-20 percent of the state’s population doesn’t have access to high speed internet. It affects even simple things, like if you want to watch a webinar…or do a video conference if you’re working remotely.

“I’m very much a free market advocate,” continued Clover Adams, “but there are times when the market does not do what needs to be done—and then it’s time for others to step in and make it happen. I think that this is one of them.”

The bottom line for Michigan’s rural communities is that not having access to high speed internet puts them at a disadvantage, both domestically and internationally. Having access gives them options. As Clover Adams explained, “If you’re a young person living in rural Michigan, and you’re not really sure whether or not you want to move to Chicago to start your career or start your business, you have an option if you have high speed broadband in rural places. If you like where you live and you can do it over the internet, you can stay. You don’t have to move to Chicago, and I think that’s really, really important to our rural places and keeping talent in the area as well.”

To help get broadband internet access to Michigan’s rural communities, the commission is proposing a number of solutions, including subsidies to entice investors to provide affordable mobile and fixed broadband access; creating a financing program to remove installation cost barriers for customers who want to pay for one-time costs to connect broadband to their homes or buildings; and establishing a grant or loan program to assist local governments and private broadband providers to support the sharing and joint use of existing assets.

To read the full report, visit www.miinfrastructurecommission.com.