-- Gabriel Barajas is the picture of success. At 21, this handsome
young man with the slightest mustache sits in his kitchen and explains
how he might start a fresh blueberry marketing business.
Mr. Barajas first tested the market last year, when he brought
some berries from his father’s 33-acres of bushes in Van Buren
County to the Benton Harbor Fruit Market (www.bhfm.com),
which serves wholesale buyers and fruit and vegetable stands from
Wisconsin to Indiana that are searching for the freshest produce.
“My dad said to just give him what the processor would pay
and I could keep the rest,” Mr. Barajas said.
The Barajas berries quickly established a reputation for good
taste among the buyers in Benton Harbor. They also made the young
man a fair profit, because the difference between the prices farmers
receive for fresh berries and the prices that canning companies
and other processors pay for bulk loads can be significant, especially
when the berries are so good.
“They started calling here for the berries,” he said.
“People were saying, ‘Check out the Barajas berries.’”
Looking into Gabriel Barajas' future is like looking at the best
possible scenario for Michigan agriculture in the 21st century,
according to Soji Adelaja, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor
in Land Policy at Michigan State University. Dr. Adelaja, who directs
the university’s Land Policy Program, recently led a team
of researchers trying to determine where the best opportunities
are in Michigan for securing and growing agriculture—the state’s
second-largest industry. The “success factors” the team
used indicate that Mr. Barajas is on the right track in developing
new markets for fresh berries.
With nearly everything changing in the world of farming—from
federal subsidies that may soon decline, to the increased vulnerability
of cross-country shipping, to rising fuel prices—it’s
high time Michigan developed a new vision for successful agriculture,"
Dr. Adelaja said. And, in an era when only very small and very large
farms seem to be prospering, he insists that size really does not
“It’s a matter of which farms are the most resilient,
diverse, and flexible,” Dr. Adelaja said.
Mr. Barajas says he will expand his wholesale blueberry marketing
experiment next year. If all goes well, he will put his pending
business degree from Western Michigan University to work, partnering
with his father, mother, and uncle, who operate a medium-sized berry
farm in the leading county of the leading state for Highbush blueberries.
Former farm workers from Mexico, the Barajas started off with five
Mr. Baraja also is a test case for Dr. Adelaja’s “success
factors,” which include a farm’s closeness to customers,
such as the southwest Michigan fruit belt’s proximity to urban
centers like Grand Rapids and Chicago, and a farm’s ability
to respond to new opportunities, such as delivering fresh foods
to nearby schools. His analysis also puts a high value on the potential
for farms to add value to their products, such as putting Mr. Barajas’
blueberries into special sauces. Tenacity and crop diversity are
also key, something that Michigan’s Hispanic farmers possess
in spades: The number of Hispanic farmers has grown in the state
by more than 500 percent since the late 1990s, and many are bringing
new varieties of chili peppers and other products to market.
The study, which was prepared for Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s
administration, also has a refreshing surprise for all those who
throw up their hands over the fact that 53 percent of Michigan farms
annually lose money. Because so many of those money-losing operation
are medium size, and, under current market conditions, are too small
to make it in the huge global trade scene and too big to be “niche”
farms selling to high-end restaurant markets, the conventional wisdom
is that they are doomed.
Dr. Adelaja disagrees: Under future market conditions, medium-size
family farms actually have the most going for them in terms of resiliency,
diversity, and flexibility.
“I’m saying the farms in the middle are more likely
to be successful and that’s why we should help them, versus
they’re in trouble and we should help them,” he said.
An earlier study that Dr. Adelaja conducted in New Jersey, as executive
dean of agriculture and natural resources at Rutgers University,
put it very clearly: “We found that the flexible mid-sized
farms generally have the entrepreneurial skills, education, savvy,
energy, and flexibility to respond to the demands of consumers,
which in the future will focus more on product quality, organic
characteristics, wellness, health, nutrition, and community connection.
While these farms are struggling today, the new price, market, and
regulatory regime will make these farms dynamic in the future.”
And it is the future of Michigan that Dr. Adelaja points to when
he repeatedly reminds policymakers in his reports that agriculture
is one of the state’s greatest economic assets. According
to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, one million jobs and
$59.1 billion in economic activity in Michigan are linked to farming.
Those numbers could increase greatly when things like agritourism
or growing bio-fuels from farm crops are considered, said Mitch
Irwin, MDA director.
“We can grow our way into new production, new jobs, through
agriculture,” Mr. Irwin said.
The growing market for better food—driven by health concerns
and consumer demand for fresher foods—is also encouraging
innovation and facilitating new opportunity in Michigan agriculture.
The Michigan Food Policy Council (www.mda.state.mi.us/mfpc),
which Governor Granholm established last summer, is charged with
developing action plans, by October 2006, for strengthening farms
and improving public health through good food.
Michigan’s Mixed Record
Michigan has a mixed record when it comes to helping farms take
advantage of such market changes and the attributes that Dr. Adelaja
says are key to farmers’ success and Michigan’s future
prosperity. One indicator is how poorly Michigan leverages federal
money with its own investments in farm business development.
For example, the state landed just under $400,000 in federal Value-Added
Producer Grant awards this year. Grants went to the Michigan Turkey
Producers Cooperative Inc. in Zeeland, MOO-ville Creamery in Nashville,
and Shoreline Fruit Inc. in Hart.
Compare that to Missouri, which raked in $1.75 million, more than
four times more money than Michigan received, for 16 farm ventures.
Michigan—the state with the second-widest variety of crops
after California and an enviable market position thanks to its proximity
to half the population of North America—ranked 13th out of
43 states that received awards.
One reason Missouri did so well is that it has focused on helping
farm businesses grow to the point where they can secure significant
commercial loans or grants, said Mary Hendrickson, at the University
of Missouri’s Rural Sociology Department.
“Our state-level value-added producer grant program had a
lot to do with it; we’ve had one longer than most states,”
Ms. Hendrickson said. In addition to granting about $2 million each
year to its food producers, Missouri offers a range of assistance
to farms with marketing and distribution challenges and offers $6
million annually in salable tax credits for farms that invest in
new value-added ventures, like on-site processing.
Michigan attempted to do some of the same in 2000, when then Governor
John Engler signed the Julian-Stille Value-Added Act (click
here to read the Act).
On paper, the law gave the MDA $5 million to put behind new food
and farm product development. The money was supposed to come from
utility companies out of their payments into the Uncollectibles
Allowance Recovery Fund. But, five years later, the MDA has yet
to receive any of the money originally promised to the program.
It has issued only one round of grants, in 2002, and that one-time
shot of money came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“All I can say is we haven’t seen one dime,”
said Bob Craig, director of MDA’s Agriculture Development
Division, of the mysterious UARF.
Innovating and Incubating for Success
But the idea that Michigan has an economic ace in the hole with
its diverse farm sector is catching on as leaders grapple with the
continuing loss of high-paying jobs in manufacturing. In November
the Legislature and the governor pledged $10 million to the Julian-Stille
grant program over five years as part of the new $1.5 billion 21st
Century Jobs Fund.
Now what’s needed, according to the Land Policy Program
researchers, is an innovation fund to make sure that Michigan farms
have the support they need to move from idea to action. Specifically,
they have proposed establishing the Innovation Fund for Michigan
Agriculture, which would bring needed financial capital to food
and farm entrepreneurs and tie together and supplement the initiatives
that do exist in Michigan but suffer from a lack of state vision
and proper coordination. The researchers estimate a $1 million annual
fund could fill the gaps in Michigan’s patchy support for
One of the existing programs the fund could work with is MSU’s
new Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources, which
provides business development support to farms. It launched in 2004,
thanks to federal grants and Tom Guthrie, the late director of the
nonprofit Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems group.
Mr. Guthrie and MIFFS were also instrumental in securing federal
funding and state economic development grants to set up business
incubators that offer entrepreneurs low-cost access to commercial
equipment and food industry expertise. One of the incubators, located
in Hart, will open early in 2006. The other, in the Thumb’s
Huron County, is still in development.
Ron Steiner, the driving force behind Hart’s incubator,
called The Starting Block, recently walked a visitor through the
renovated building that will house it.
“People are really excited about this being available,”
he said, sounding like a proud and excited new parent. “We’re
getting a lot of interest.”
Mr. Steiner long championed property tax breaks for food processors
that make major investments in new technology or product innovations.
His and others’ efforts led to the establishment of agricultural
processing renaissance zones in the late 1990s. Michigan now has
17 such zones and a commitment by anchor companies to 1,166 new
jobs and investing $548 million. Once a zone is established, innovative
food processing companies can locate there and enjoy similar tax
Mr. Steiner looks forward to the day when some of the food businesses
that come through the Starting Block incubator will graduate to
places of their own in one of Oceana County’s four such zones.
“It’s a perfect synergy,” Mr. Steiner said.
“We can get them started from a knowledge base and entrepreneurship
standpoint and then we’ve got the perfect place for them to
go for continued low-cost support.”
One of the entrepreneurs knocking at the Starting Block’s
door in the future may well be Gabriel Barajas. Neither he nor his
father, Filburto, is discouraged by agriculture’s naysayers.
They know they can make it.
“See that little field over there?” Filburto Barajas
said, leaning on a snow shovel in his enterprising son’s driveway.
“We’re going to plant blueberries there.”