2009-12-12 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Agriculure Chief Touts a Growing Industry
By George Weeks

Michigan’s economic grief is underscored by slumping sales and jobs in the auto industry, which is replete with turnover of auto chief executives.

Seldom mentioned: Michigan’s agri-food industry, which, according to the state’s ag chief executive, contributes $71.3 billion annually to the state’s economy, “making it the state’s second-largest economic driver.”

Don Koivisto, the low-key director of the Department of Agriculture, is well credentialed in a state that produces more than 200 commodities on a commercial basis, second only to California in agricultural diversity.

Koivisto, 60, grew up on a farm near Ironwood in Gogebic County, westernmost in the Upper Peninsula, and now lives on a 160-acre Centennial Farm near Ellsworth in Antrim County, where he rents out land for others to grow corn, soybeans, and hay.

In the 1980s, Koivisto (DIronwood) was chairman of the state House Agriculture Committee, and in 1991-2002 was a state senator representing all but five U.P. counties.

At the outset of a phone interview last week, I noted that he lives in a district that will next year have an open Senate seat now held by termlimited Senator Jason Allen (RTraverse City). He laughed off the idea of running again for the Legislature, this time below the bridge.

Nor was Koivisto about to weigh in on the controversy about Governor Jennifer Granholm’s October 8 executive order that gave a governor power to appoint the ag director, now named by the gubernatorially appointed five-member Commission of Agriculture, as Koivisto was in August 2007.

“To a degree I have stayed out of it,” he said. “It’s a no win to get into it.” He added that he works well with Granholm, and “I do take some orders” from her.

A compromise was reached last week that clears the way for a revised Granholm executive order being implemented, without rejection by both houses of the Legislature, that includes her merger of the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Quality with power of the governor to appoint the director.

Her new order transfers back to the ag commission oversight powers to approve the rules and regulations promulgated by the director. While it does not reinstate the commission's authority to appoint the director, Michigan Farm Bureau President Wayne H. Wood said, “it addresses the bulk of the agriculture industry's concerns and is a far better option than what was originally proposed.

“…the new EO does grant the commission authority to conduct an annual performance review of the director. The performance appraisal will be reviewed by the Governor, and if the director receives a negative review, the MDA director must submit a corrective action plan to both the Governor and Agriculture Commission.”

While I favor having governors, in the interest of accountability, appoint department directors, as do presidents, I’m impressed with effectiveness of the ag community in getting Granholm to slightly tweak her order after the GOP-ruled Senate rejected it.

True to his mission, Koivisto eschewed political talk in favor of expounding in the interview on how Michigan’s agricultural economy expanded at a rate more than five times faster than the rate of the general economy (11.9% vs. 2%) between 2006 and 2007, “making agriculture a cornerstone to diversifying Michigan’s economy in the future.”

Fair enough. Having long ago picked cherries by day and worked in a canning factory by night, I’m glad to note Koivisto’s trumpeting that Michigan leads the nation in production of 19 commodities, including tart cherries, and ranks in the top 10 of 30 other commodities.

“There’s a big demand for cherry products around the world,” said Koivisto, who noted that Michigan exports about one-third of its agricultural commodities each year, the largest being soybean and soy products.

Founder Bob Sutherland of the Glen Arbor-based Cherry Republic, which also has retail outlets in Traverse City and Charlevoix for its 92 products, said $2.5 million of its sales are in other states. That includes 60% of its online sales.

“There’s a fever for cherries,” said Sutherland, who recently took two truckloads of products to a show in Houston, Texas, where 50,000 people visited his booth.

Not bad for a fellow who started a business in 1989 selling T-shirts and moved into cookies, jams, and other cherry products in 1992.

Koivisto says that in addition to emerging small businesses and all of the Kelloggs, Gerbers, and other long-established food industry firms in Michigan’s economy, there are “the 65 and growing” wineries fueling a surge in the state’s agri-tourism.

Michigan, home to 56,014 farms, has about 10 million acres of farmland. Koivisto praised the conservancy movement across the state for efforts to preserve farmland. Asked for examples, he said: “The best is on the Leelanau Peninsula. (The Leelanau Conservancy) is the best model I can think of” in raising money and effectively using it for preservation.

I enjoyed dealing with straight-talking Koivisto during his legislative days in Lansing.

He’s certainly pumped up for his current role down there.

Campaign Watch

In his quest for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard has had some impressive endorsements, including Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and former U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole.

A buzz on the trail is whether these two endorsements telegraph where their husbands will be down the line: former Michigan First Lady Michelle Engler, wife of former Governor John Engler, who retains a keen interest in state politics, and Jane Abraham, wife of ex-U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham and former Republican state chairman.

Speaking of wives on the trail, there was this interesting Democratic fundraising e-mail pitch last week from one Pam Faris:

“A little over thirty one years ago, a man I met at a political fundraiser asked me out on a date. Of course, it was to another political fundraiser. We hit it off right away and were engaged to get married a few months later. We have been married 30 years now and politics is still a big part of our lives. The man who asked me out is my husband, Lieutenant Governor John Cherry.”

She went on to rave about how “He loves Michigan with its beautiful Great Lakes, best-in-the nation public universities, cities that promote arts and culture, and beautiful state parks” and so on. After other raves, she urged recipients to “please encourage my husband to run for Governor with a contribution to People for Cherry.”

Encouragement not needed. He’s running.

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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