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Sunday, 14 April 2013 22:00

Ag focuses on improving talent development systems

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Farm work has become an increasingly technical field as IT systems and new technology has engrained itself in modern agricultural practices. That shift has changed the talent demands for the sector, sources said. Farm work has become an increasingly technical field as IT systems and new technology has engrained itself in modern agricultural practices. That shift has changed the talent demands for the sector, sources said. COURTESY PHOTO

With an economic impact that exceeds $91 billion, more people are taking note that Michigan’s agricultural industry is a large driver of growth for the state.

But even with the second-most diverse array of commodity crops (California’s agricultural sector is the most diverse), experts in the state are constantly searching for methods to grow and expand the agribusiness sector, including increasing state support for the industry.

Bob Boehm, manager of the commodity and marketing department at the Michigan Farm Bureau, told MiBiz that currently the organization is working with both Michigan’s legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to pass an additional $3 million appropriation for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The Farm Bureau wants to see the department get additional funding to better address the workforce development needs of the state’s agricultural processors, Boehm said.

Currently, Boehm said the Farm Bureau’s lobbying is focused primarily on trying to improve technology for the sector and have training available for a new generation of farmers and growers.

The state’s agricultural sector needs to train and retain people who understand traditional farming techniques, but also grasp new, useful technologies, said Jim Byrum, who heads the Michigan Agribusiness Association. More often, that’s meant looking to people with skills one may not associate with traditional farming, he said.

“Some of our key folks are going to retire in the next five years. … We have a tremendous need in the (agribusiness) industry for folks that can step up and manage some of the new technology,” Byrum said. “Some of the skill sets that we’re going to look for (in) people coming into the industry are probably a little non-traditional.”

Byrum put particular emphasis on the need for workers who understand IT and supply chain management, while at the same time grasp the science of agriculture.

The Michigan Farm Bureau’s Boehm told MiBiz the agribusiness sector as a whole is much more sophisticated than it was even a decade ago. Boehm said computers and global positioning systems are now commonplace on the farm.

Aside from the state legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2013-14 proposed budget — which proposes a 4.2-percent increase in the budget for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to $76.9 million — Boehm said the Farm Bureau continues to work with Michigan State University to support it in providing the necessary training for agribusinesses, particularly in the implementation of new technology.

“Michigan State University is looking at some models around the world and has been looking at maybe adding to our current ag tech program, which is designed for farmers to come in and work for two years through a program, and then go back to the farm with some basic skills, enhanced from what they might have had,” Boehm said.

Michigan State University, well-known in the region as an agricultural school, is looking at a number of ways to help combat the talent retention issues that plague agribusiness in Michigan and elsewhere.

“MSU is undertaking a multi-pronged approach to the issue of identifying and training the next generation of workers in the agri-food sector,” said R. Brent Ross, an assistant professor of agriculture with MSU. “We have recently formed a working group to conduct an assessment of the Michigan Agricultural Workforce.”

Ross told MiBiz that MSU currently has a number of programs in the works for improving the agribusiness industry. Among them are assessing workforce needs in the state’s dairy sector, making a map of underused land around the I-69 highway corridor in the center of the state, and creating a set of best practices for managers in the next generation of farm workers.

Boehm said there is also a push around the area of food safety, particularly on the processing side.

“(We need to) make sure we’re not jeopardizing the safety of our food supply,” Boehm said. “It probably doesn’t take a four-year degree but perhaps a certification program or two-year degree.”
Ross told MiBiz that MSU is working to have the resources in place for the growing areas of food processing and safety.

“The sector is rapidly increasing its usage of technology and requirements for managing knowledge,” Ross said. “In part, this has been led by food safety regulations and fragmenting consumer markets, which have increased the need for traceability and accountability.”

With these factors in place, the Michigan Agribusiness Association’s Byrum believes the sector is well positioned in the state economy.

“We’re actually in a better spot than we’ve been in a long, long time,” Byrum said. “As we look at growth opportunities out here, it’s significant to recognize that in the last several years, our production has increased dramatically. While most of Michigan’s economy was in a downturn, (agriculture) was in a significant growth pattern, and we continue to grow.”

According to a survey released by the state, Michigan’s food and agricultural sector grew 39 percent from 2004-2010.

While talent retention, proper training and the implementation of new technologies are controllable problems, there is still one challenge that worries people in the sector: the weather.

“Last year at this time, we were thawing out cherry and apple blossoms that had already come out prematurely,” Boehm said. “This year, we’re way behind the normal. So we have a good opportunity for a good crop this year because of the slow spring warmup. I think there will be some growing concern if we don’t get some warm-up here. I think we’re OK right now, but I think if we get another couple of weeks into mid-April and we’re still looking at some snow flurries in the forecast and cold soil temperatures, then you’re going to have some concerns by the spring-planted crop folks.”

Read 4164 times Last modified on Tuesday, 16 April 2013 11:06

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