Agriculture drives the Midwest economy – and farming is just the start of it

Mar 21, 2012

This month, we’re looking into some of the hidden assets of the Midwest – the parts of our economy that don’t often get noticed when we talk about our strengths (the first part of the series is here). Agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of local economies in the Midwest – it accounts for billions of dollars worth of exports and thousands of jobs. There’s been a lot of concern about whether enough young people are going into farming these days. But the ag industry goes well beyond being just farming – and plenty of young people are interested in that.

At Navy Pier, a special meeting of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences’s FFA chapter is being called to order. Ringed around the room, one by one, chapter officers check in during the traditional opening ceremony. It ends when President and Senior Jennifer Nelson asks her fellow FFA members: “Why are we here?”

The students stand and chant in unison: “To practice brotherhood, honor agriculture opportunities and responsibilities, and develop those qualities of leadership that an FFA member should possess.”

These students are part of the 17,000 FFA members in Illinois alone. Membership in the organization overall has increased 20 percent since 2000, to more than half a million members across the country. But there’s a reason why FFA no longer calls itself Future Farmers of America.

Actual farmers make up just about two to four percent of the American work force. But people who work in related industries that depend on what farmers do account for at least a quarter of the entire work force. That includes everyone from people in food services jobs to Kraft executives to commodities traders.

These students were at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show to exhibit a garden they designed and built, and to sell food produced in the school’s kitchens.

Applications to the public school – located on the far south side of the city – have almost doubled in the past year.

But student Justice Plummer wasn’t so sure about agriculture when she first found out she got in. Her mom convinced her to go, and she’s never looked back – even though she’s the first in her family to go into the industry.

At the moment, Plummer is nine for 13 on being accepted into colleges she applied for – all to study agricultural business. She wants to major in agriculture business in college, and eventually get her Master’s degree and work in the Peace Corps, all in relation to agriculture business or finance.

“Everybody looks at me, like, ‘Agriculture?’” she says, laughing. “They just think of farming. But it’s all about food, clothing and shelter, and people are always going to need those kind of jobs.”

Instructor Corey Flournoy agrees.

“Just here in Chicago – some of the largest food companies are based here, from Quaker Oats to Kraft Foods,” says Flournoy, who is in charge of the new Center for Urban Agricultural Education, a partnership with the University of Illinois. “The opportunities to work in agriculture – because those are agricultural companies – are plentiful. We need more people to go into those fields.”

Educators like to use the acronym STEM to describe this need for people who know science, technology, engineering and math.

“I say that agriculture puts the STEAM into STEM,” said Laurie Kramer, an associate dean at the U of I’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.  When I asked her how much farming was a part of the college’s curriculum, she laughed and said you would think it was “big.” That’s what it was like 50 years ago.

“Nowadays, things are very, very different,” says Kramer. Seventy percent of the college’s students come from urban environments. The few students who focus on farming are likely to come from farming families, she said,  adding that today, the number of farms – especially those operated by families – is very small.

“It’s very expensive to run those operations, it’s very tricky,” she says.

Part-time farmer Howard Haselhuhn would agree. He’s an electrical engineer for Texas Instruments. But his West Michigan farm has been in his wife Amy’s family for several generations. She’s a CPA. When they were first married, Amy says they thought about farming full-time, but:

“We just didn’t see how we could possibly make a living off of a farm that was this size and growing commodity crops and also make payments off the land,” she says.

Together, the couple saved for 25 years to buy the 420-acre land from the rest of her family. Most of it is rented out to full time farmers. But on the weekends, they make the three and a hour trek west from their house near Ann Arbor to check on their hops crop.

Michigan’s farmers exported $1.75 billion worth of food – mostly to Canada – in 2010. Forecasts are that number will top $2 billion this year. The state’s goal is to double Michigan’s exports in the next five years.

More than half the farms in the Michigan area are what the USDA considers residential or lifestyle farms – meaning that the owners have other full-time incomes. Another 20 percent are retirement farms – what the Hasselhuhns hope this will be.

The farm was started in the 1930s by Amy’s great-grandfather. She says growing up on the farm gave her strong attachment to the land that Howard now shares. And even though they didn’t grow up there, her children have it, too – that weekend, her eldest son and his wife were also up at the farm, helping out. Her hope that is future generations of Haselhuhns will be at this farm, maintaining that attachment to the land.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.