By Rachel Bidock
Clinton County Staff Reporter
The relationship between farmers and non-farmers in Clinton County has changed, but the importance of farmers in the county has not.
Farms are a vital source of income for towns in Michigan, said Paul Thompson the Kellogg Chair in agricultural, food and community ethics at Michigan State University.
“Farming really is the single, economically most important industry in most of these rural communities, particularly here in the southern half of the state,” Thompson said.
According to Scott Swinton, a professor at MSU’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, because farmers earn money for their crops and then spend that money, they help out the communities.
“When one person in a region earns money, as farmers do from selling their crops and livestock, they spend that money other places in the community, it’s what economists call a multiplier effect,” Swinton said. “The income to any member in the community becomes indirectly income to other members of the community, in rural areas of Michigan where farming matters, it’s a very important effect.”
Farms and the nearby towns used to depend on one another heavily, but as time has passed this relationship has weakened explained Professor Patricia Norris, from MSU’s department of agricultural, food, and resource economics.
“There was a symbiotic relationship between the small communities and the agriculture production that took place, and that really began to change in the ‘50s, as we began to see these small towns become less connected to agriculture,” Norris said. “In the ‘60s on through the ‘70s people left the more urbanized areas and went to go live in these small towns, like a lot of the towns in Clinton County.”
According to Norris, towns have also transformed. Today it may not be as easy to find farming equipment and feed stores as it once was.
“Instead of having a tractor dealer in every small town you might have one in a county, if you’re lucky, instead of having a grain elevator in every small town you might have one in a county,” Norris said.
Bill Birney, owner of the Ovid Farmers Elevator, is well aware of the changes that have occurred in his community, and he prides himself in his elevators ability to change and grow with those needs.
“This elevator started in 1861, selling feed, back then coal, also wool was a big factor, those two things we don’t do anymore,” Birney said. “As farms grew and feed became more complicated the elevator just grew and we provide farmers with feed.”
Where some farms once specialized in a single crop, they now provide a variety of crops and livestock. John Felzke, owner of Felzke Farms in DeWitt, explained that his farm is one of the farms in the county that now produces a variety of goods.
“We grow corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. We do a lot specialty crops like strawberries, sweet corn and tomatoes then we have about 150 head of beef cattle,” Felzke said. “We’re pretty diversified. A lot of the farms around us are mainly corn and soybeans, but we’ve been actively busy through all the years.”
Understanding the rules and regulations of farming can help non-farmers learn what actually goes into farming, Norris said.
“There’s a host of laws that are in place to protect against environmental problems from agriculture,” Norris said. “The Right to Farm law has generally accepted practices that are both for crops and livestock farming, and so that’s intended to create an incentive for farmers to do the best they can to be protective of the environment and be protective of their neighbors.”
Felzke makes sure that his farm follows the rules and stays up to date with licenses in order to protect the environment.
“We’re all certified applicators for spraying pesticides. There’s three of us here that carry private licenses along with commercial licenses,” Felzke said. “We’re pretty conscientious especially with the Looking Glass River.”
Dale Rozeboom, a professor in the department of animal science at MSU, explained that farms can be successful in helping to protect the environment, although they may run into some road blocks.
“It’s work for the farmer to be responsible; to manage and prevent their farm from having an environmental impact, and they can do it successfully,” Rozeboom said. “But then there’s also having the right equipment, the right time, understanding weather – because weather is a factor that affects farming dramatically.”
According to Swinton, agriculture can contribute to the health of people and the environment.
“Agriculture can remove carbon from the atmosphere. It plays an important roll in that,” Swinton said. “It creates attractive landscapes, and of course most important of all agriculture provides food and energy sources for people.”
The best way to close the gap in Clinton County is to support and engage one another, Swinton said.
“I’m actually hopeful that with the spread of community supportive agriculture and other kinds of ways for non-famers to engage with farmers and get to be on farms and learn more about it, that will make a little headway,” Swinton said.
Felzke explained that he thinks that they have a good relationship with the community, and he makes sure to be involved in events in order to maintain it.
“We’ve done a lot of community events with Lansing,” Felzke said. “In the fall they do a trick-or-treat in the square, and the past few years we would take straw down there and donate for them to do their straw maze. I say we’re well-known around the area.”
Clinton County engages the entire community in events such as the Mint Festival, which is a festival that St. Johns resident Patricia Beck is big fan of.
“What is interesting about this area is the mint farms that we have,” Beck said. “During the time of the festival a lot of extra people are here and they can go out and visit the farms that have the mint and tour them.”
Strengthening the relationship between farmers and non-farmers is important in any community, and one way to do it is by having respect for one another, Norris explained.
“There’s always got to be this mutual respect between the people that the industry depends upon and the people that depend upon the industry,” Norris said. “We have to share the space.”