Michigan’s Great Farm Statesman

Every now and again you cross paths with someone who just vibrates differently than the ordinary Joe. It’s more than superior intelligence, or charisma, wisdom, energy, and experience. It’s how rare people draw those gifts together in a way that is so graceful and encompassing and fearless. A statesman, if you will. Michigan is in desperate need of more of these kind of people.

Michigan’s farm sector, fortunately, is graced by an authentic leader, a Nigerian-born agriculture economist named Soji Adelaja, who leads the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University.  Early in his career Soji spent time on Wall Street, where he applied the  very same economic models used for attaining crop production efficiency 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.

soji.jpgMSU 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, and 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 on the threshold of a new economic era based on better uses of land.

Not long after Soji arrived, unfortunately, the bottom dropped out of Michigan’s economy and instead of talking about how to rein in sprawl and smart growth the state conversation shifted to how to prevent decline. Like other advocates Soji retooled the message and suggested that Michigan’s competitiveness 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. He spoke here today in his lovely Nigerian accent to some 300 food and farming specialists and advocates, arguing that good food grown and consumed in Michigan is as important to the 21st century 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. In food, land, and good health lies the foundation of a durable economy that Michigan is desperate to develop. 

Seeds of Prosperity

In Lansing today to cover the events and presentations during the day long Seeds of Prosperity Conference. Among all of the states, there is arguably none experiencing a greater economic struggle than Michigan. Measured in standard indicators of economic performance — joblessness, number of young adults departing the state, home foreclosures, and rates of childhood poverty  — Michigan ranks at the window.jpgtop or near the top. Personal income has fallen 5 percent below the national average, the first time that’s occurred since the Depression. And in the measures that Michigan once led the nation — income growth, new business starts, average wage increases — the state is heading towards Mississippi instead of California.

One of the unexpectedly strong economic sectors in Michigan, though, is agriculture. Really. Michigan’s more than 55,000 farms produced more than 200 commodities that generated $4.5 billion in revenue at the farm gate last year. The Michigan Department of Agriculture estimates that agriculture’s overall contribution to Michigan’s economy—through products, processing, marketing, distribution, and other activities—is $60 billion annually and accounts for one million jobs. 

But Michigan doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to its food and farming industry. Our second-term governor, Democrat Jennifer M. Granholm, promoted a Select Michigan program early in her first term. That produced heightened sales of Michigan-grown fresh fruit and vegetables. Lately, she’s talked a lot about alternative energy, especially ethanol production, which could produce a boon for corn and grain producers. It could conserve farmland, a good, but also add to erosion and other environmental harms, a bad. Most importantly, the loopy thermodynamics of ethanol production are enough to make any thinking person scratch their head. A gallon of ethanol produces just about the same amount of energy as it takes to grow, ship, and process the corn needed to yield a gallon which produces the same amount of energy….

Instead, Michigan needs to look much harder at the places in the farm and food community where there is real excitement. And those sectors have converged around Entrepreneurial Agriculture, which is the great name for a movement developed by my colleague Patty Cantrell to describe the growers, marketers, shippers, manufacturers, processors, and markets that make it easier for good food grown in Michigan to actually reach its residents. Goodness knows, this state knows how to eat. Look around and that’s more than apparent. Michigan has the highest rate of obesity in the nation, and among the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes. 

Yet next to California, we also have the second highest number of home grown commodities in the country. It’s a magnificent feast produced on good Michigan ground by hardworking Michigan residents. The point of this conference is to elevate to public attention the people and projects that are putting more of that good healthy food on Michigan’s table.

Place and Social Media – A Convergence

Those of you who read Wendell Berry, the great Kentucky poet, novelist, and essayist, know that when stripped to its essence, Berry’s singular contribution to the national idea is this: America works best when its people are connected to their places. Successful communities and a durable nation, Berry argues, depend on people who love and safeguard the land. The other side of this Jeffersonian thought, one that Berry writes about with eloquence and depth, is that rootlessness has undermined America’s social and economic edifice.

What’s intriguing as I travel the country is the resurgence of allegiance that Americans express for their place. I’m not pollyannish about this. Crime, family discord, joblessness, political division, and the sense of unease that exkeith.jpgists in the country provide plenty of evidence that we are not yet close to solving our many ills. Still, there is an unmistakable surge of fealty that many Americans exhibit for where they live. 

Expressions of community loyalty are easy to find, and never more so than last week during the run up to the Super Bowl. Steve Rubel’s fine Micro Persuasion, which covers social media trends, drew my attention to this picture of Chicago from Flickr.  Here is an example of how a blog and social media Web site focus on a civic message expressed beautifully across one of the world’s distinctive skylines. Chicago, by the way, has come way back from the delapidated condition that existed in the 1970s and 1980s. The city embraced a three-point economic development strategy that stresses environmental sensitivity, energy efficiency, natural resource conservation, and park investment, and you’ll be reading much more about that here. 

More evidence of the convergence of social media and place is the development of “place blogging,” a great example of which is A VC, based in New York. Place bloggers are taking up the space left vacant by the often vapid and blood-focused urban and regional broadcast newsrooms, who try to describe their places in 3-minute takes. Depth and knowledge, as local TV news watchers know, are not virtues in local television news. Print newsies also ought to be aware, too. Place bloggers are challenging conventional dailies and weeklies in covering trends, economic developments, housing, and cultural events. Like other forms of media produced by consumers, place bloggers are defining the new intellectual geography of reader and viewer interest, and in some cases are breaking news and starting to make a living at it.

The point is that an old American value is developing new momentum, a trend reflected in the generation of fresh voices in social media.


Keith Schneider is a nationally known journalist, strategic communications, and public policy specialist based in northern Michigan, where he’s lived since 1993. He currently serves as communications director for the Apollo Alliance, a national coalition of labor, environmental, and business groups working on accelerating the clean energy economy and the millions of new jobs that will result. He splits his time in northern Michigan and in San Francisco, where the Apollo Alliance is based.

In the months prior to joining the Apollo Alliance in March, Keith was senior editor and producer for Circle of Blue, an online multi-media news organization focused on helping to solve the global freshwater crisis. Circle of Blue manages an international network of journalists and academics who file multi-media reports that are edited, produced, and disseminated from its newsroom in Traverse City, along the northern coast of Lake Michigan. Keith also is a regular correspondent with the New York Times, where his work has appeared since 1981, a writer-in-residence at the Michigan Land Use Institute, and a contributor to more mainstream and online publications.

During his entire career, Keith has worked in the space where technology, economics, public policy, and social change intersect. His expertise spans agriculture, the environment, transportation, urban affairs, communications, and social media. In 1995, he founded the non-profit Michigan Land Use Institute, one of the largest and most influential state-based research, communications, and advocacy organizations in the nation. The Institute, based in Traverse City, employed 21 staff members in five regional offices with a nearly $1.5 million budget. At the center of the Institute’s work is a very active news desk, which Keith designed and managed. At its peak, the desk was composed of three editors, five correspondents, two graphic designers, and a Web producer. The Institute’s Web site, which added multi-media tools to enhance non-fiction storytelling and commentary in 2007, attracted nearly 200,000 visitors a month who downloaded over 485,000 pages a month. At the time that he left the Institute in September 2007, Keith served as the Institute’s editor and director of program development.

Prior to founding the Institute, Keith was a national correspondent with The New York Times, where he covered the environment, agriculture, and energy and was widely recognized for his penetrating reporting. He is a two time winner of the George Polk Award, one of the distinguished prizes in American journalism, and has won numerous other journalism honors.

Keith was born and raised in White Plains, N.Y., and received a B.A. in American Studies from Haverford College. His journalism career started in Boston in 1978, where he freelanced for the city’s daily and weekly newspapers, as well as for Boston Magazine. He also converted sermons into published commentary for Reverend Ike, the black evangelist who was based in the city. He later worked as a health science writer in Pensylvania for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, where he covered the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster. From there he moved to South Carolina, where he was a feature writer for the Charleston News and Courier. He won several awards for feature writing and public service. In 1981, he founded SC Featured, an independent news service that syndicated original investigative reporting and photography on the environment and science to major newspapers, news magazines, and television news programs. In 1983, he founded a second independent news service in Sacramento, Ca., News West, that focused on agriculture, biotechnology, and the environment, publishing articles in major newspapers and national magazines. During this period he was awarded several grants from the Fund For Investigative Journalism.

In 1985, Bill Kovach and Howell Raines, the editor and deputy editor, hired Keith to join the Time’s Washington Bureau, where he initially covered agriculture and the environment. Later, during a shakeup in the Bureau prompted by Judith Miller’s tempestuous and blessedly brief tenure as deputy bureau chief, Keith became a national correspondent under the stewardship of Soma Golden Behr, the Times’ great national editor. In 1995, Keith left the paper as a full-time correspondent to oversee an expanding grassroots campaign to improve oil and gas development practices in Michigan, a statewide effort that led to the founding of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia, where he lives with his wife, Pam, and their three children, Kayla, Mara, and Cody.

Reach Keith at 231-920-0745 or keith@apolloalliance.org