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Michigan group promoting farm markets, agritourism
By SHELLY STRAUTZ-SPRINGBORN
Michigan Correspondent

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A new group has been formed in Michigan to promote farm markets.

The Michigan Farm Marketing and AgriTourism (MI-FMAT) Assoc. recently was created to advance Michigan agriculture by promoting the collective interests of farm market and agritourism business owners and operators.

“This is really not about what you grow or how you grow it, it’s about the business model of selling directly to consumers,” said Patrick O’Connor, Michigan State University doctoral student who researched and helped establish the MI-FMAT.

“Consumers are looking for ways to connect to the land and where their food comes from,” he said. “Whether it’s purchasing fresh, locally grown produce, baked goods and specialty items such as crafts, sampling cider or wine at the farm, or enjoying seasonal activities such as picking out pumpkins or cutting a fresh Christmas tree, farm markets and other agritourism stops are popular destinations for families.”

Farm marketing and tourism combine the state’s second and third largest income-producing industries behind the No. 1 automobile industry. In Michigan 193,000 residents are employed by tourism and more than a million by agriculture and related processing operations.

“Our organization is the first to really bridge those two industries,” said Steve Tennes, president of MI-FMAT and owner of Country Mill, a seasonal farm market in Charlotte. “That’s what’s so critical about this, especially as agricultural producers face global competition.

“It’s important for us to look at the tourism industry as a way to differentiate ourselves and offer an experience to our customers,” he said.

“What we’re trying to do is reach out all the way across agriculture, from riding stables to milk parlors to fruit and vegetable producers, and encompass all of agriculture in our farm marketing and agritourism association,” he said. “By promoting agritourism, we help educate the public about farming in general.”

The MI-FMAT was formed earlier this year after an Internet survey and roundtable discussions showed strong interest in creating a statewide organization dedicated to serving the needs of the farm markets and agritourism businesses.

Gwen Anderson, who owns and operates Anderson and Girls Orchard in Stanton with her husband, Terry, and their daughters and sons-in-law, served on the committee that established the association and is now serving on the group’s board of directors.

“One of the reasons we have been established is to help people with legal issues,” she said.

Anderson explained that many growers and farm marketers are battling zoning requirements in their areas, competing with strip malls, housing developers and others in an attempt to stay in business.

“We’re losing farm marketers every year because of zoning,” she said.

Anderson cited an example of a farm marketer in the Detroit area whose longtime farm is now surrounded by new developments.

“This woman had a mall moved in across the road from her and now they want her out,” Anderson said. “I’m afraid she’s going to lose. We can’t fight it. As an industry we have no structure, no ordinances to protect us.”

The new association would represent the interests of the state’s farm markets and agritourism businesses at the local, regional and national levels. Efforts would include addressing and working through regulatory issues such as zoning and site inspections, as well as creating promotional and educational programs to encourage consumers to visit farm markets.

“This organization was built from the ground up by members of the Michigan farm marketing and agritourism industries,” O’Connor said. “Because of the grassroots approach taken by business owners and operators to form this organization, it truly will be guided and driven by the farmers and entrepreneurs themselves.”

Tennes said education will be key for establishing and strengthening the organization, as well as governmental affairs and providing networking and educational opportunities for its members. During the next year the organization intends to establish itself and will work to promote its members through its website at www.mi-fmat.org

Anderson said the organization is hoping to organize a summer farm tour to promote farm markets and agritourism for its members.

“We’re just getting started, but we want to make things happen,” Anderson said.

She also encourages agritourism owners and operators to get involved with the organization and to let the group know what their needs are.

“We want to know what you need. We’re working for the best interests of the industry and we encourage everybody to be a part of it. It will help get agritourism recognized as an industry itself,” she said.

Owners, managers and employees of farm markets or agritourism destinations in Michigan are eligible for active member status. Active members are entitled to vote, hold office and participate on committees.

The fee to become an active member is $100 per calendar year. A spouse or family member of an active member or an employee working for an active member can apply for basic associate membership for a $25 per year fee.

People who work for businesses that supply goods or services to farm markets or agritourism operations can apply for corporate associate memberships at $250 per year. Associate members are not eligible to vote, hold office or serve on committees. All membership applications are subject to board of director’s approval.

For more membership information e-mail Patrick O’Connor at oak@msu.edu or visit the organization’s website at www.mi-fmat.org

Establishing MI-FMAT has been an industrywide effort. Initial funding for research and the format of the MI-FMAT Association was provided through Project GREEEN, Michigan’s plant agriculture initiative at Michigan State University. The Michigan Farm Bureau provided additional support, including legal counsel. Staff members from MSU Extension, Michigan Farm Bureau and Michigan Department of Agriculture also served as advisors.

This farm news was published in the Jan. 3, 2007 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

1/3/2007