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Published: Wednesday, 3/21/2001

Farm aid to benefit Lenawee agriculture

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ADRIAN - Jeff Ehlert has farmed the same 800 acres for four decades, and things aren't getting easier.

So any help farmers can get to keep their businesses thriving and costs down is welcome, he said.

And local officials are listening.

The Lenawee County Commission, Michigan State University extension services, and local agribusiness recently teamed up to develop a new county job designed to help farmers in this southeast Michigan county.

The Agricultural Land Use and Economic Development Specialist will try to bring agricultural processing plants to Lenawee County to help farmers turn their crops into food and other products.

And if the processing plants won't come to Lenawee County, the specialist can at least help farmers work together to ship their goods to out-of-state processing plants, Mr. Ehlert said yesterday.

“There are a lot of specialty markets out there. But unless you have several thousand acres of farmland or you can put the produce of several farms together, to get into that market is difficult,” said Mr. Ehlert, 58, owner of Jeff Lynn Farms in Blissfield. “If you can't bring the processing plants to you, you have to have enough product to go to those plants.”

The goal is to increase the profitability of farming.

Lenawee County has more than 336,000 acres of farmland, generating about $102 million a year in agricultural products, according to the 1997 agriculture census. But with residential and commercial needs on the rise, farmers sometimes find it more profitable to sell their land than cultivate it.

David Munson of the Lenawee County Chamber of Commerce said the new position will help longtime farmers stick to farming. And by strengthening farming, the entire county will benefit, he said.

“People who live here do so for the quality of life and having open space and farmland definitely adds to the quality of life,” Mr. Munson said. “If you like farms and open space, then you need to have farmers.”

County commissioners recently approved a $60,000 annual budget for the position. That figure includes the director's salary, which hasn't been set. The commissioners will pay about half; the rest of the money will be split among the MSU extension office, private businesses, and farms.

The director will answer to a five-member board, which will evaluate the program after six years. No one has been hired to fill the position.

Larry Gould, a county commissioner and farmer, said a committee has worked on the project for two years.

Mr. Gould farms about 1,250 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans. His Morenci farm has about 650 head of cattle.

Although larger than the average Lenawee County farm, Gould Farms is hurt by the lack of local processing facilities.

“Right now, there's a lot of trucking involved,” he said. “Farmers may be hauling their products, well, it's not unheard of them to go clear to Atlanta, Georgia.”

But while a Lenawee County plant would be ideal, Mr. Gould said farmers would be pleased with a processing plant anywhere in the region.

“We'll look for somewhere in the region that would benefit Lenawee farms and other farmers as well,” he said. “They would like to see something in Lenawee but even something in Monroe [County] or the Toledo area would be helpful.”

Mike Score, a Michigan State University Extension Service agricultural agent, said farm profits have been dwindling for years because of competition with other nations, where costs tend to be lower. By bringing processing facilities to the area, farmers will lower costs by cutting shipping expenses, he said.

Mr. Score can think of only two processing companies in the area: The Anderson's in Toledo and American Soy in Washtenaw County. And with 1,236 farms in Hillsdale County and 1,058 farms in Monroe County, the area is rich with agricultural land and produce, he said.

“If we have local plants that are turning our crops into products that are then purchased locally, we would likely have more of an appreciation for local products,” Mr. Score said. “We're not saying it has to be in our backyard, but it needs to be close.”



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