Up north, sustainability is everywhere

Capital News Service  

LANSING — What do a trail system linking Northwest Michigan communities, a small-scale organic vegetable farm that supplies local restaurants with fresh produce, citizen-scientists alert for invasive aquatics, apple researchers and critics of an oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac have in common?

All are part of a drive for environmental sustainability and all involve some form of community engagement.

As Michigan State University’s Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism, I was part of a recent Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project (SMEP) study tour in the Cadillac-Traverse City-Leelanau Peninsula area.

Other study tour participants were doctoral students and faculty from a range of departments:  Community Sustainability; Philosophy; Fisheries & Wildlife; Journalism; Planning, Design & Construction; and Agricultural, Food & Resource Economics — including grad students from Togo, South Korea and Colombia. All are involved in researching some aspect of sustainability in Michigan.

Endowed by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, SMEP “serves as a catalyst and convener of interdisciplinary dialogue and research around existing and emerging sustainability topics and has invested considerable resources in exploring the implications of sustainability particularly for the future of Michigan.”

Last year the group examined environmental justice and sustainability in Detroit. This time the geographic focus was more rural and agricultural: Traverse City, the largest city in Northwest Michigan but with fewer than 16,000 year-round residents.

We began at the Department of Natural Resources’ Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center in Cadillac. There, amid exhibits about hunting, fishing and wildlife in the state, a DNR interpreter explained the importance of Michigan’s hunting tradition, and the revenue that fishing and hunting licenses generate to support natural resources management and protection.

The next day we went to TART — the nonprofit Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails network — to learn about the community-rooted initiative that promotes outdoor recreation, furthers sustainable transportation and connects trail users with each other and with nature.

“We don’t want to own the trails. We want the community to own the trails,” TART’s Brian Beauchamp told us. “People often fight us on new trails,” Beauchamp, outreach and program director, said, but often discover that the trails increase their property values — and often use the trails themselves.

We met with experts from two environmental nonprofit organizations, For Love of Water (FLOW) and the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, to discuss such issues as the safety of the controversial Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. FLOW’s Dave Dempsey and Groundwork’s Jim Lively explained how groups like theirs are partnering with tribal governments and businesses in an effort to force the state to close the pipeline.

We headed into the field at the Maple Bay Natural Area, a 450-acre Grand Traverse County Park, with fisheries biologist Steve Hensler and forestry expert Jessica Simons of the Cerulean Center and scientist-educator Jeanie Williams of the Inland Seas Education Association. There our focus was biodiversity and the role of citizen-scientists in gathering environmental data such as plant populations and invasive species.

Amidst lapping waves, low sand dunes, water-smoothed rocks and soaring gulls, our fieldwork included helping Hensler to identify hundreds of tiny fish caught in a seine, alert not only for invasives but also for native fish that aren’t usually found in the East Arm of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay.

We also learned from them about BioBlitz, their two-day effort last year by volunteer amateurs and scientists to inventory as many plants and animals as possible at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

At Michigan State University’s Northern Michigan Horticulture Research Center in Leelanau County, researchers serve farmers and growers in its five-county — Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse and  Antrim — that produce nearly half of the U.S. tart cherry crop and 83 percent of the state’s sweet cherry crop. The center is also a key player in research about other fruits, especially apples and grapes.

Center coordinator Nikki Rothwell talked about the importance of building relationships between growers and researchers and about recognizing the potentially deadly impact of climate change and extreme weather — such as late frosts and drought — on fruit crops. She emphasized the need to understand the economics of farming and the pressures of development in Northwest Michigan.

We headed to Shady Lane Cellars, a boutique winery in Suttons Bay, to tour the vineyard with vineyard manager Andy Fles and the wine-making facility with winemaker Kasey Wierzba. From there it was to Loma Farm, an organic vegetable and flower farm near Traverse City, to learn from co-owner Nic Theisen about marketing locally, paying employees fairly, environmental sustainability and respecting the land.

Overall, it was evident how diverse aspects of sustainability in Northwest Michigan are, from vineyards to shoreline dunes, from organic leeks to the oil and natural gas pipeline under Straits of Mackinac, from worker wages to outdoor recreation.

Michigan could become the hot new place for dairies

Capital News Service

LANSING — Climate change may give a big boost to dairy farming in Michigan, a new study of the future for U.S. dairy farms says.

“Dairy production in North America will shift to areas with sufficient rainfall and adequate growing seasons, primarily migrating from the West and Southwest to Great Lakes regions and into the Canadian prairies,” according to Jack Britt, a former Michigan State University professor and now a North Carolina-based industry consultant.

“Dairy farms will relocate to regions that have ample rainfall and suitable climates,” he said in a recent study that looks at dairy farming in 2067. That includes Michigan and Northern Wisconsin.

Michigan has about 1,800 dairy farms, according to United Dairy Industry of Michigan, an industry group. And based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the Michigan Milk Producers Association says the state “is home to some of the most efficient cows in the country, ranking second in terms of production per cow.”

Among the 10 counties with the most dairy cows are Ingham, Missaukee, Newaygo, Lenawee and Eaton, according to the Agriculture Department.

Five of the country’s top 10 milk-producing states are in the Great Lakes region: Wisconsin (2), New York (3), Michigan (5), Pennsylvania (6) and Minnesota (8). When it comes to the number of milk cows, Wisconsin is second and New York is third, with Pennsylvania in fifth place, Minnesota in sixth and Michigan in eighth. California ranks first in both categories, according to Statista.

Ernie Birchmeier, a livestock and dairy specialist at the Michigan Farm Bureau, said the state’s dairy industry is already expanding fast, with “a tremendous amount of growth over the last decade.” Michigan accounted for one-third of the industry’s national growth in 2016 “because of the positive climate we have for dairy production.

“We have for the most part a temperate climate that doesn’t stray much from the norms and conducive to growing feed stuffs,” Birchmeier said. “We’re also fortunate that compared to the Southwest we have a much more reliable water source.”

Looking ahead 50 years, Britt predicted that all seasons will become warmer in the upper Midwest and Northeast, and “water demand will increase less in these regions than in almost any other parts of the country.”

That’s bad news for the Southwest and West where the “availability of water for dairy farms will be limited” by late in this century, he wrote in the study.

And in an interview, Britt said rising temperatures will put Michigan, northern Wisconsin and Canada’s prairie provinces in a “sweet spot.”

Dairy farmers should take a long-term view to take advantage of those expected changes: “I’d probably be investing in land,” he said. “I know farmers that are large-scale operators looking at where they’re going to be dairying in 20 or 30 years.”

The Farm Bureau’s Laura Campbell says preparations for climate-related changes are underway among crop growers and other types of livestock farmers as well, whether they attribute their actions to climate change or to “because it’s right for my farm.”

For example, they’re more aware of the impact of changes in precipitation than in the past and how that affects the movement of nutrients on and off of their fields.

“You’ll see most of it in the western Lake Erie Basin” where they’re saying, “We’ve got to do something about algal blooms,” according to Campbell, the organization’s manager of agricultural ecology.

The Farm Bureau’s Birchmeier emphasized, however, that dairy farmers should make decisions based on economic returns “much more so than on climate change expectations.” For example, he noted that Michigan already produces more milk than can be processed in-state, so dairy cooperatives are sending the excess to Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania for processing.

Meanwhile, Brit predicted other significant changes for the region’s dairy industry, including a doubling of milk production per cow, genetic breakthroughs and growing international markets.

While U.S. demand will likely remain stable, demand will jump in Africa and Asia, which will be home to a projected 81 percent of world population in 50 years, he said. And U.S. dairy farmers need to develop products that meet the needs of those continents.

Study warns fish lovers of multiple chemicals


Capital News Service

LANSING — A new study questions whether public health advice on eating Great Lakes fish is restrictive enough.

Ken Drouillard, a professor at the University of Windsor, looked at whether the Great Lakes region recommends sufficient restrictions on monthly meals of sport fish.

The results are in, and while they say no, they weren’t as restrictive as Drouillard expected.

Consumption advisories are used to limit human exposure to harmful substances that fish may contain.

Drouillard found that 60 percent of advisories would provide more restrictive advice under a method that takes into account multiple chemicals in a fish. That’s contrary to the current practice of basing fish advisories on just a single contaminant, according to the study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives. Continue reading

Farmers uninterested in renting land for bioenergy crops


Capital News Service

LANSING — When Scott Swinton, an agriculture, food and resource economics professor at Michigan State University, asked landowners if they’d be interested in renting their land for bioenergy crops, the initial response was unexpected.

“The first thing we found was that a number of people that we sent questionnaires to were hoping MSU was secretly trying to find people they could rent land from to grow bioenergy crops,” Swinton said.

“I got scores of phone calls from people telling me they would love to rent their land to MSU if we were interested.”

But that wasn’t what Swinton was looking for. Instead, he was trying to study the willingness of farmers to rent land that isn’t used for crops. Continue reading

Seed-stealing bugs threaten prairie restoration


Capital News Service

LANSING — Bugs hinder prairie restorations more than previously thought, according to research conducted at Michigan State University.

The study found that arthropods — which include insects, spiders and crustaceans — account for the majority of seeds removed from prairie restoration sites.

The study could catch a lot of attention in the prairie restoration field, said Mary Linabury, an MSU plant biology researcher who authored a study to be published in the Journal of Plant Ecology.

“In the past, I don’t believe that managers believed that arthropods had much of an impact on seed consumption,” said Linabury, who conducted the research with Lars Brudvig and Nash Turley of MSU. “This study says otherwise.” Continue reading

Cows and deer that share salt might also share disease


Capital News Service

LANSING — A popular source of nutrition for cattle is a potential site for transferring disease, according to a recent study.

Salt blocks are potential transmitters of tuberculosis from cow to deer and vice versa, said John Kaneene, the lead researcher of a study by Michigan State University’s Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health.

The blocks are commonly placed in pastures for cattle to lick. At night, deer can enter the field and lick the same salt.

The study found that if a deer or cow is infected, it can leave that disease on the salt block for the next animal to eat.

“It’s a big finding,” said Kaneene, who is an epidemiology professor at MSU. “We kept on saying, ‘Despite all these efforts, why are we having repeated infections on these cattle farms?’ That’s how we came to salt blocks.” Continue reading

Computer model bolsters sustainability, production for dairy farms


Capital News Service

LANSING — Researchers at Michigan State University are creating a computer model to help make pasture dairy farming more sustainable.

The project draws upon several research papers released in the past three months that discuss the environmental impact of livestock farms and how climate change affects them.

They also address the challenges of moving cows from barns to pastures.

Mecosta, Sanilac and Hillsdale counties have more than 100 dairy farms each, according to the United Dairy Industry of Michigan. Allegan and Huron counties have between 76 and 100, while Gladwin, Missaukee, Newaygo, Montcalm, Ionia, Clinton and Isabella counties have between 51 and 75 each.

Pasture-based livestock graze year round or seasonally. That’s different than in confined systems where the cows are housed and fed indoors for the majority of the year, said Melissa Rojas-Downing, an MSU doctoral student and a co-author of the research papers. Continue reading

Productivity boost offsets acreage, price declines of corn


Capital News Service

LANSING — Soon Michigan farmers will start planting millions of acres of corn, cultivating what has become a billion-dollar business in the state.

Farming is one of the top three industries in Michigan, and corn one of the top crops.

“Agriculture in Michigan has been a growing industry, contributing a great deal to the state’s economy,” said Kate Thiel, a field crop specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau and its 46,500 member farmers.

One of the largest crops in Michigan is corn, Thiel said. Michigan farmers grew about 2.4 million acres of corn for grain in 2016, generating $1.1 billion last year – despite a price drop.

“While corn growers have seen a decrease in value of their product in recent years due to decreased commodity prices, they still play a large role in Michigan’s economy,” she said. Continue reading

Fluctuating weather complicates harvesting for farmers


Capital News Service

LANSING — As the weather continues to fluctuate around the state, farmers are being forced to adapt to changing conditions.

Amanda Shreve, the program director for the Michigan Farmers Market Association, said farmers can adapt to virtually any weather condition. She also said that as a result of warmer weather for longer periods throughout the year, farmers markets open earlier in the year and close later than they used to.

“We used to have a general farmers market season of July – September, but now we see a lot of markets starting in May and going all the way through October or November,” Shreve said.

Some crops come in early as a result of the warmer temperatures, too. Maple syrup is set to come in about a month early, said Savannah Halleaux, a public affairs officer for Michigan’s Federal Service Agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Continue reading