Trails built, growers boosted with rural development grants

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Members of the Great Lakes Conservation Corps (GLCC) have assisted Upper Peninsula communities with a wide variety of nature tourism projects thanks to grant support from the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA). Image: The GLCC is a program of the Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP).

By Riley Murdock

Capital News Service

A nonprofit in Marquette, Michigan, is improving trails and promoting sustainable tourism.

A distillery in Grand Traverse, Michigan, is buying a second still to contract whiskey distilling using Michigan ingredients.

And a pasta company in the same town plans to improve seed processing to further promote the Michigan agriculture industry.

These are among the organizations that won Rural Development Fund grants from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in 2017.

The development grants fund projects to help industries that make use of local land, create jobs and support infrastructure that benefits rural communities. The department’s 2018 grants were announced in mid-March.

The grants are very competitive, said Heather Throne, an outreach specialist for the department’s Agriculture Development Division.

“We received 86 proposals requesting more then $6.4 million” for 2018, Throne said. Eleven were awarded for $891,905 in projects, including in Escanaba, Marquette and Ludington.

Of 73 applicants for 2017, 17 received grants, including Grand Traverse Distillery and Grand Traverse Pasta Co. in Traverse City and the Superior Watershed Partnership in Marquette.

The watershed partnership received a $75,200 grant for its Tri-County Nature Tourism Project, according to the department.

Carl Lindquist, the executive director of the partnership, said the grant has allowed the nonprofit to fund improvements for local tourism and maintenance of its natural spaces.

“It’s been an amazing grant,” Lindquist said.

Marquette and nearby Upper Peninsula communities have seen such an increase in tourism that they’ve incurred some of its negative effects, including trail erosion, Lindquist said.

A lot of local governments don’t have the resources to address costs related to tourism and maintain their sites, he said. The grant helped the watershed partnership make trail improvements and better maintain local sites.

It also helped fund a Great Lakes Conservation Corps crew to work with local governments and small businesses in Marquette, Alger and Delta counties to enhance nature tourism opportunities. The crew helped to build new trails and restore historic structures. The work also gives young adults the opportunity to gain experience in local government and conservation, Lindquist said.

Grand Traverse Distillery owner Kent Rabish said his grant will help purchase a second still that will allow him to contract out whiskey distilling. He said this will allow other companies to produce a product that is 100 percent made in Michigan, as more than half of all craft distilleries are purchasing starter ingredients from large companies rather than local ones.

“Just because a customer sees something distilled in Michigan doesn’t mean there’s an ounce of Michigan grain in it,” Rabish said.

Instead of buying ingredients from out-of-state and “repackaging” them, Rabish said his contract distilling will allow Michigan breweries and distilleries to support Michigan agriculture. Rabish buys grain and other ingredients directly from a neighboring farm for the company’s lineup of alcohols.

The equipment must be ordered 12 months in advance, and the new still is expected sometime over the summer. The company is operating at full capacity, and because of seasonal finances the upgrade would have been three to five years down the line without the grant, Rabish said.

“It’s been wonderful,” Rabish said.

William Koucky, the owner of Grand Traverse Pasta Co., said his company easily fit the profile for the grant. The company buys grain right from local farmers, mills it and makes it into pasta, he said.

The company received a $75,250 grant last year to purchase equipment to improve its processes, according to Agriculture and Rural Development.

The company plans to use its grant to improve the efficiency and infrastructure for seed cleaning and conditioning, which will promote the local grain industry, Koucky said.

However, the grant hasn’t been implemented yet. Koucky said the grant will reimburse  him, so the company must have the money to spend on improvements first.

“If I bought a $10,000 piece of equipment, the state would cover $7 (thousand) of it,” Koucky said.

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