Our green heritage, our green future

07-30-2009

MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon operating a farm tractor.

Last week, we saluted our roots at Michigan State as we hosted our 30th annual Ag Expo. Coincidentally, the nation and the world observed the 40th anniversary of the moon landing at about the same time.

Today, what the moon’s Sea of Tranquility has in common with the crop fields of the Great Lakes is technology. A personal highlight for me last week was to operate a new generation of farm tractor that likely has more navigational and computational power than our lunar explorers enjoyed.

Agriculture is an increasingly high-technology business. Tractors like the one I operated now use global positioning satellite and geographic/topographic information system technology to determine exactly where they are, what to do, and how best to go about it.

At our dairy operation at the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station in Kalamazoo County we’re opening a pasture-based demonstration project in August that utilizes a fully automated robotic milking system, allowing the cows to milk themselves. Such technology not only saves labor, but it also can contribute to the sustainability of family farms by freeing owners from rigid schedules to enjoy family and community activities the rest of us take for granted—making agriculture a more attractive career option for them and their children.

I mentioned at the opening of Ag Expo that you could take any point in time and accurately apply the statement that agriculture holds the promise and potential to change local and global communities. Who could have imagined 40 years ago or 30 years ago—or even 10 years ago—that agriculture in its various forms—agrifood, agrifuel, and agriproducts—might one day eclipse manufacturing as Michigan’s top industry?

It’s not so far-fetched. We all feel the agonizing pullback in Michigan’s manufacturing sector. But agriculture today has a $71.3 billion positive impact on the state’s economy and grew 12 percent in 2007, according to a study released in February by the MSU Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources. Agriculture and food account for 20 percent of the state’s economy. Our agrifood system grew five times faster than the general state economy between 2006 and 2007.

Another recently published report based on International Monetary Fund statistics tells us that exports of Michigan’s manufactured goods to other countries fell 12.5 percent between April and May. Foreign sales of nonmanufactured, mining, and reexported goods—including agricultural products—on the other hand rose 9.7 percent. Both, unfortunately, have tumbled precipitously from the previous year’s numbers due to the worldwide economic contraction. Witness the plight today of America’s dairy farmers, beset by rising costs and falling prices.

Despite its challenges, agriculture has proved that it holds real promise for the future—promise nurtured by MSU through our Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) and MSU Extension (MSUE) systems and by our researchers who continue making breakthroughs to commercialize food and biofuel technology. But continued threats of cuts in state support to MAES and MSUE in particular raise real concerns about our ability to continue to support this high-potential industry in the future as we have in the past. These critical organizations should be treated no differently than the rest of Michigan’s higher education funding.

Given the proper resources, we’re optimistic that a thriving agricultural sector will help power a resurgent Michigan economy. At Ag Expo this year, agricultural economist Steve Harsh talked about farm- and community-based wind energy projects. We offered a youth entrepreneurship panel and a discussion on so-called kitchen incubators that help agrifood entrepreneurs launch their businesses. These were among the many sessions and demonstrations speaking to agriculture today.

The opportunity to test-drive the latest in heavy equipment offered by manufacturers is always a popular attraction at Ag Expo, and one of the advantages to being president is that I get to call first dibs. I consider myself a pretty fair equipment operator from my rural youth, but the big, new vehicles—literally—can drive themselves.

I was especially looking forward to getting in the driver’s seat after chatting recently with Klaus Hoehn, the technology and engineering vice president for John Deere & Co. He and I sat together on a panel discussion at the Council on Competitiveness State of Innovation Summit June 23 in Washington, D.C., and he described to me the advanced capabilities of the latest farm equipment.

Now I’ve experienced that first-hand—along with hundreds of others who attended Ag Expo. They will be among those with whom we’ll continue to cocreate solutions to humanity’s still-daunting food and environmental problems and to nourish Michigan’s economy. This and so much more is the work of a land-grant university in the 21st century.

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