Productivity boost offsets acreage and price declines of Michigan corn

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Image: Daniel Bauer, Flickr.

By Carl Stoddard

Capital News Service

Come spring, Michigan farmers will start planting millions of acres of corn, cultivating what has become a billion-dollar business in the state.

Farming is one of the top industries in Michigan and corn one of the top crops.

“Agriculture in Michigan has been a growing industry, contributing a great deal to the state’s economy,” said Kate Thiel, a field crop specialist at the Michigan Farm Bureau and its 46,500 member farmers.

One of the largest sectors in  agriculture is corn, said Thiel. Michigan farmers grew about 2.4 million acres of corn for grain in 2016, generating $1.1 billion last year – despite a price drop.

“While corn growers have seen a decrease in value of their product in recent years due to decreased commodity prices, they still play a large role in Michigan’s economy,” she said.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where farming ranks among the state’s top industries, said Kathy Achtenberg, public information officer for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.  If you look at all jobs related to producing food – from farmers to food delivery truck drivers – agriculture supports 923,000 jobs, or roughly one out of every five workers in the state, Achtenberg said. That’s about 22 percent of the workforce.

“Michigan produces more than 300 commodities, making us the state with the second- most diverse agriculture industry in the nation behind California,” she said.

In all, Michigan’s food and agriculture businesses contribute $101.2 billion a year to the state’s economy, she said.

“Michigan’s food and ag businesses are one of our major economic drivers, and we continue to see new business development and job creation in agriculture,” Achtenberg said.

On average, Michigan farmers plant 2.2 million to 2.4 million acres with corn each year, said Jim Zook, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Corn Growers Association and the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan.

How much corn they plant depends on the market and the weather, Zook said. But overall, corn production continues to grow.

“We are probably one of the industries (in the state) that has sustained growth, basically since 1935-36,” said Zook, whose program represents some 16,000  corn farmers.

More than a century ago, Michigan farmers planted more acres with corn than they do today, he said. But farmers today are producing far more corn.

Most of it feeds livestock, according to the  Corn Growers Association. Less than a quarter of the crop is used to produce ethanol, and that seems unlikely to decrease any time soon.

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly supported the use of ethanol in gasoline. President Trump reaffirmed that support in a recent letter to the National Ethanol Conference, saying “renewable fuels are essential to America’s energy strategy.”

Some groups, however, question the environmental benefits of ethanol produced from corn.

The total cost of planting, harvesting and hauling corn and then processing it for use in ethanol needs to be considered, said Tom Zimnicki, agricultural policy director for the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing.

“The benefit does not outweigh the overall environmental costs of producing that fuel,” Zimnicki said.

But Zook says ethanol is clean, safe and readily available: “It’s a fuel. It’s in the marketplace. It’s here to stay.”

Moreover, corn is the foundation for many other agricultural products, used for milk production, cattle feed, poultry feed and ethanol, Zook said.

Corn production in Michigan totaled nearly 200 million bushels in 2001. Production has been growing since then, up to 335 million bushels in 2015, according to the Corn Growers Association.

Michigan farmers planted 2.7 million acres with corn in 2012. That has been trending down since, the Farm Bureau says. But bushels per acre of corn rose  during the same period, increasing from 132 in 2012 to 157 last year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a report issued Feb. 27, said the preliminary value of all Michigan field crops produced in 2016 was $3.14 billion, down 4 percent from 2015.

With the exception of soybeans, the value of all individual field crops in the state fell from 2015, the USDA’s Great Lakes Regional Office said.

In terms of revenue, Michigan’s top five agricultural products are dairy products, greenhouse and nursery products, corn for grain, soybeans and cattle, the state says.

Corn for grain produces about 11 percent of the state’s agricultural revenue.

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