The economy in Michigan, as we all know, is changing. The automotive industry is struggling — though it has been a little better since gas prices sunk from four bucks a gallon to about $2.80. And either way, fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs are available in a state that has depended upon them for generations. In her push to fix the economy, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has encouraged creating a new, knowledge-based economy. But I don’t see why a new kind of economy is necessary — Michigan already has an industry that’s working for it.

Michigan’s agricultural industry is often overshadowed by the prominence of the automotive industry and other manufacturing jobs. Other industries like tourism and a variety of manufacturing businesses are more visible than agriculture. But agriculture is the state’s third largest industry and it produces billions of dollars of business for the state each year. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 10 million acres of farmland in Michigan in 2008. Cherries, blueberries, asparagus, cucumbers, geraniums, corn, soybeans — if it’ll grow in Michigan soil, we can make money off of it. And livestock farming is valuable, too. Michigan produced almost $1.5 million worth of milk in 2008.

Michigan’s agriculture also draws in some tourism. There are a few Michigan destinations that are known across the country for their agricultural features. The Traverse City area, for example, produces some of the best cherries in the nation. And there’s an entire tour devoted to Michigan apples. According to Michigan Apple Tours, Michigan is the third-largest apple producer in the country.

Agriculture in Michigan is expanding and changing. According to a Sept. 22 article in The Flint Journal, a delegation of Egyptian government officials visited Michigan to learn about Michigan agriculture last week. My hometown, Webberville, was one of their stops. They also visited Durand High School, Michigan State University, the Michigan Farm Bureau and several other agricultural facilities. And the Michigan Brewers Guild received a federal grant in February to encourage the growth of hops in the state. Not to mention that soybeans is used to create biodiesel, a substitute for gasoline.

Even inner-city residents are realizing the potential of investing in agriculture. There has been a push in Detroit to revamp the city’s urban plan. The idea — called right-sizing — is to clear large tracts of developed land that now lies abandoned in the city and move residents closer to downtown. Surrounding land could then be redeveloped. One suggested use for the vacant lots is to turn them into urban farms. Some of these farms already exist. One such farm, controlled by the organization Urban Farming, is fairly close to the downtown area and provides fresh fruits and vegetables for the community.

Many rural areas have classes focused on agriculture and the environment, but most inner-city schools ignore this important industry. But Detroit could benefit from encouraging agricultural education — especially if the right-sizing plan comes to fruition in the next decade.

There are two prime ways to encourage agricultural education. The first is to encourage more agricultural programs at intermediate school districts. These are centers that offer programs for many school districts from one region — usually a county. Many of these ISDs have career centers. If more ISDs offered an agricultural education program, students could exit high school prepared to find work in Michigan’s third-largest industry.

The other way — which is more near and dear to my heart — is for individual schools in urban areas to create FFA chapters. FFA — which used to stand for Future Farmers of America — is a student-led program that develops leadership through agriculture. Members learn about the value of agriculture in our society and are encouraged to gain proficiency in skills like livestock farming, crop production, or entrepreneurship. My high school has an FFA program — I was its proud vice president — and it has been a valuable resource for students who know that they want to be involved in agriculture after graduating from high school.

Most of Michigan’s FFA chapters are in rural areas. That’s logical, but urban school districts could also benefit from FFA chapters. Urban school districts should encourage the growth of FFA chapters to produce more students with in-depth knowledge of a successful Michigan economic sector.

A knowledge-based economy sounds great. But that route may take time that the state doesn’t have. And since Michigan already has an industry that works, it should invest in expanding and improving it. Schools should encourage agricultural education to promote growing Michigan’s agricultural industry.

Rachel Van Gilder is the Daily’s editorial page editor. She can be reached at rachelvg@umich.edu.

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