By KEVIN WALKER
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The agriculture sector has a real chance to grow and expand in Michigan in coming years, but if it is to do so it must deal effectively with the considerable infrastructure challenges that face the state.
That’s the overall message coming out of a new report by the Michigan Agri-Business Assoc. (MABA), called Project 2025. The 45-page report was issued last Thursday.
“Agriculture is Michigan’s second-largest industry and it’s going to continue to grow,” said Jim Byrum, president of MABA. “That growth is going to put pressure on Michigan’s aging infrastructure. For agriculture to continue growing and creating jobs, it is crucial that Michigan adopt policies that build the infrastructure we need to access new information, new technology and new markets quickly.”
The report recommended the following policy proposal: Maintain the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) as a well-funded and separate department.
There have been periodic proposals to combine MDARD with other departments, especially in times of budgetary constraints. These have occurred often in recent years.
Another proposal is to eliminate the “punitive” Michigan personal property tax. This was proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder, also, but opponents have asked how the revenues are going to be replaced.
Another proposal is to create a comprehensive transportation revenue stream to support highways, roads, bridges, rail maintenance and port development.
Michigan’s roads and highways are not doing well; recently, Snyder floated the idea of a $10 monthly Secretary of State fee to help pay for improvements to the state’s roads and highways, but that, along with other recent proposals to increase fees or taxes for roads and highways, has not been enacted.
Other proposals include creating incentives for biobased electricity generation and reasonable power purchase agreements for renewable electricity providers, and expanding utility choice for business and residential customers from 10 to at least 40 percent. In his report, Byrum said the relative lack of utility choice in Michigan makes the state an expensive one for electricity.
Finally, the report called for the creation of innovative programs to get young people interested in careers in agriculture.
Byrum’s report is heavy on history and covers the main infrastructure areas, including water, rail, roads and highways, utilities, broadband and even labor supply.
According to the report, advances in agricultural technology are likely to increase yields of corn to 250 bushels an acre by 2025 and there will also be increases in yields for soybeans, along with wheat.
“The point of all this is that with biotechnology advances, especially with shorter-season crop varieties, climate change and accompanying longer growing seasons make farming in northern Michigan a more significant opportunity,” the report stated.
“This trend will allow for production on thousands of acres in the years to come. As the acreage expands, and yields increase, this development will become a major driver of the economy and rural development in northern Michigan.”
A problem with this development is that infrastructure is not keeping up. In railroads, for example, the problems are significant.
According to the report, about 70 years ago railroad companies began to be less competitive as highways were built and as too much regulation made it more difficult for the companies to compete. Trucking started to look like a cheaper way to get things from Point A to Point B.
Starting in the 1970s, railroad companies started to go out of business and many railroad tracks began to be sold and cut off. For reasons that might have made sense then, tracks were often cut off and no connections were made to other lines. Miles of tracks were simply abandoned.
“During this period, hundreds of miles of railroad lines across Michigan, and thousands of miles of railroad in the United States, for that matter, were abandoned and ‘harvested,’ meaning the rails were sold for scrap, ties sold for secondary uses and even the rock ballast, where there was some, was resold,” the report said.
What is left is a railroad system that is inadequate, in at least some respects. According to the report, every rail line in the Thumb area is a dead end. The report also pointed out because railroad cars are getting bigger and their loads heavier, railroad bridges are going to have to be upgraded. But that will be expensive.
It pointed to a study from Kansas, which says it would cost $308.7 million to upgrade that state’s rail lines and bridges. “We have reason to believe that Michigan shortline railroads are in a similar situation,” the report stated.
In order to handle the projected growth of Michigan’s agriculture sector, the state’s railroad system must be “consistent and reliable,” the report concluded. It also stated railroads are critical to the viability of rural communities, which are most often farming communities.
The whole report is available at the MABA website at www.miagbiz.org