Providing opportunities for farmer-to-farmer connection is one of MiAA’s main program areas.
From a consumer point of view, sustainable farming seems like a straightforward target. But for farmers, doing better for the land and environment can be confusing, expensive, and full of obstacles. Michigan Agriculture Advancement wants to change that.
The organization, fondly called by its acronym MiAA (my-ah), launched in the summer of 2020. As its founders—Michigan farmer Tim Boring, agricultural researcher Julie Doll, and conservationists Adam Reimer and Tom Zimnicki (National Wildlife Federation & Alliance for Great Lakes, respectively)—worked on projects across the state over the past decade, they had ongoing conversations about practices beneficial to soil and water quality. In their work, they saw that habits like diverse crop rotations, farming in strips, and managing nutrients and pests in environmentally friendly ways—such as with cover crops, buffer strips, and pollinator habitat —were not easy to integrate into the dominant, production-based approach of farming. Eventually, these colleagues identified a need for a new organizational voice in the state, one that could understand Michigan’s existing barriers while serving farmers, eaters, rural communities, and the environment.
“We felt that there was a niche we could fill by supporting the more innovative farmers in our state who are already doing environmentally conscious farming,” said Julie, MiAA’s CEO. Such farmers need relationships with peers to help each other, and to invite uninitiated farmers into what they are learning and doing. Given the often isolated workplaces of farming, and the entrenchment of conventional approaches to agriculture, such connections are not common. “We want to bring these farmers together. They need a space to pick each others’ brains and talk shop.”
Sixth generation farmer Tim Boring initially served as President of MiAA, but was appointed as State Executive Director of FSA for Michigan in October of 2021. Shortly afterwards, Julie left her position at Michigan State University to take over leadership of MiAA. Farmer Melissa Shaw now works part time as the Farmer Engagement Coordinator.
Melissa farms a 4th generation, 1400-acre farm in Marlette, Michigan with her husband Ryan (pictured, left), raising sugar beets, corn, soybeans, and cereal rye with a soil health-focused approach. Julie is grateful for Melissa and Tim’s farming experience informing the work of MiAA.
“I’m from a research and outreach background, so grounding my work with farmer input is crucial.,” said Julie. For 13 years, Julie worked at the Kellogg Biological Station, one of Michigan State University’s agricultural experiment stations. Knowing what farmers are facing every day, and on every level, from weather to markets, is vital as she considers how to approach structural change in the ag world.
Providing opportunities for farmer-to-farmer connection is one of MiAA’s main program areas. Their annual ‘’Underground Innovations” meeting is a big connector event and will be held for the fifth time in January 2023, this time meeting in Frankenmuth, after two years of virtual events. Throughout the year, MiAA helps farmers continue conversations through field days and other remote methods.
The second part of MiAA’s work is crowdsourcing information from farmers and agriculture professionals on the ground to understand what stands in the way of more farmers adopting conservation practices, and with that knowledge, make suggestions for better policies and programs at the state and federal level. This kind of community listening and reporting is key to advocating for change; the essence of these conversations is distilled into reports and papers that serve as the base of their current and future work.
Two significant issues MiAA focuses on are the need for long-term conservation programs at the state and federal level, and the limited markets for sustainable agriculture production and products. These are intractable problems, and improving our food system is a cross-sector endeavor requiring dramatic increases in the adoption of soil health practices, significant expansion in the strength of our rural economies, and robust diversification of our cropping systems.
“These lifts are too big for any one organization alone,” said Julie, reflecting on how working with AGC augments their capacity and extends their reach. “MiAA embraces the adage ‘if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ We’re excited about going far with AGC.”
Going it together was center stage last week when AGC, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, and MiAA collaborated on a two-day Midwest GRIT event in Michigan. ‘Great Grains, Great Women’ brought together nearly 30 women farmers, some of whom are actively farming food-grade grains, and some of whom are curious about it, for a two-day exploration of the work and all it involves. The trip included four stops: to AGC member Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Jennings Farms and Firefly Fields in Nashville, the Edward Lowe Foundation in Cassopolis, and the Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners. MiAA is following up on the experience this fall with a virtual book club for women farmers and teachers—apply to join them here.
“We’re going to continue working to address gaps and deficiencies in the system. Some of that will be working for better policies and financial investments, and some of that will be facilitating networking and increasing opportunities for farmers, buyers, and those involved in conservation ag,” said Julie.
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