Every now and again you cross paths with someone who just vibrates differently than the ordinary Joe.Â It’s more than superior intelligence, or charisma, wisdom,Â energy, and experience.Â It’s howÂ rare people draw those gifts together in a way that is so graceful and encompassing and fearless.Â A statesman, if you will. Michigan is in desperate need of more of these kind of people.
Michigan’s farm sector, fortunately,Â is graced byÂ an authentic leader, aÂ Nigerian-born agriculture economist named Soji Adelaja, who leads the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University.Â Â Early in his career Soji spent time on Wall Street, where he applied theÂ very same economic models used for attaining crop production efficiencyÂ to investment forecasting. He made his name at Rutgers, where he was a senior executive in the agricultural extension program, and among other things, developed New Jersey’s $1 billion farmland and open space investment fund.
MSU convinced Soji to move himself and his family to Michigan nearly four years ago, when the governor and Legislature seemed poised to enact pieces of a new smart growth development strategy that included conserving farmland and open space, strengthening cities, andÂ slowing down energy- and money-wasting sprawl. Though Soji’s a nationally renown economist, at heart he’s really an accomplished public policy advocate who was convinced that Michigan was poised onÂ the threshold ofÂ a new economic era based on better uses of land.
Not long after Soji arrived, unfortunately,Â the bottom dropped out of Michigan’s economy and instead of talking about how to rein in sprawl and smart growthÂ the state conversation shifted to how to prevent decline.Â Like other advocates SojiÂ retooled the message and suggested thatÂ Michigan’s competitivenessÂ could be tied to how we treated cities and land, how we thought about food and farming, how reliance on a multitude of interlocking ideas instead of just one idea — auto manufacturing — could make the state’s transition much easier. Soji, in short, began to talk about prosperity. He was among the first to frame that big idea around leveraging Michigan’s agriculture sector in new ways.Â He spoke here today inÂ his lovely NigerianÂ accent to some 300 food and farming specialists and advocates, arguing that good food grown and consumed in Michigan is as important to theÂ 21st centuryÂ as auto manufacturing was in the 20th. There was a time not terribly long ago when such a notion would have been considered so far from the mainstream as to be almost laughable. Not any more.Â In food, land, and good health lies the foundation of a durable economyÂ that Michigan is desperate to develop.Â