Cultivating local farm economies

Farm viability requires flexibility, innovation in local government planning and zoning to allow for farm income diversification.

Fundamentally, farmers are entrepreneurs. With the rising sun, farmers greet each day knowing they have products and services that must be of sufficient quality and quantity to meet a market demand. The thing is, markets change and farmers, like any business owner, must adapt to the changing markets globally, nationally, and even locally.

Increasingly, Michigan farmers have seen and explored market opportunities beyond commodity production. Many specialty crop producers are adding value to their raw products and selling those refined products directly to consumers. Travel any Michigan rural county road and you’ll likely pass numerous such farm stands and farm markets. Some might even take things to the scale of value-added processing through canning, freezing, dehydrating, fermenting, brewing, and more.

A related market opportunity for Michigan farmers is expanding the farm market to a scale that might be considered an agritourism operation. The Michigan Agritourism Association defines agritourism as the places where agriculture and tourism connect – “Anytime a farming operation opens its doors to the public and invites visitors to enjoy their products and services – that’s agritourism.” According to The Economic Contributions of Agricultural Tourism in Michigan, it is estimated there are more than 4,000 agritourism operations statewide. Farmers are continually innovating to meet the demand for agritourism and farm-based experiences. This has led farmers to grow programs like on-farm dining experiences, farm-based lodging and recreation and educational opportunities.

While all of the aforementioned market opportunities suggest that Michigan farmers have ample entrepreneurial pursuits, it must be recognized that in Michigan, local governments write the majority of rules that either allow or don’t allow these economic opportunities throughout a given jurisdiction. The news media is replete with stories of Michigan farmers pursuing one or more of the above farm diversification opportunities only to receive cease and desist notices from local zoning administrators or face a costly court battle.

From the local government’s point of view, processing of farm products is not covered by Michigan’s Right to Farm Act (Public Act 93 of 1981, as amended) and such operations can present noise, odor, and other nuisance concerns. Or an agritourism operation might explore evening activities on the farm, such as a barn wedding, that can have another set of health, safety, and public welfare considerations for local officials. Further, on-farm renewable energy development can result in a landscape change that is in conflict with the pastoral and natural sense of place enjoyed in a community by many residents.

Michigan State University Extension will present a four-part webinar series entitled Cultivating Local Farm Economies: Planning, Zoning and Emerging Issues in Agritourism to educate both farmers and local government officials on these economic opportunities and help find common ground between the two perspectives.

Local government officials, farmers, and other interested community members are invited to join MSU Extension educators and community partners to learn about the trends in Michigan’s agritourism markets and how to tailor local regulations that allow for on-farm diversification while addressing health, safety, and public welfare concerns.

The webinar series runs Mondays in June, noon to 1 p.m., covering the following topics:

  • June 7 - Introduction to Agritourism and Local Planning and Zoning
  • June 14 - Understanding Local Zoning, RTF, and Farm Market GAAMPS
  • June 21 - Agritourism and Value-Added Processing 
  • June 28 - Emerging Issues in Agritourism

The cost to register for the webinar series is $25. Additional information and registration are available at: https://events.anr.msu.edu/CLFE_Agritourism

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