Kent County commission to consider agribusiness study


An agribusiness “community work group,” similar to the one set up by Kent County a couple of years ago to study collaboration and potential consolidation of local governments, has been proposed by the Board of Commissioners’ Executive Committee.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld, chair of the committee, said a proposed Agri-Business Community Work Group would consider potential steps to help support, expand and attract agribusiness in Kent County, including both agricultural production and processing.

He said in a written statement that it should include what tools can be “reasonably applied to ensure sufficient, suitable land for plant- and animal-based production,” plus efforts that may encourage local market outlets and processors, and steps to further promote Kent County agribusiness on a regional and national scale.

Proposed membership of the Agri-Business Community Work Group could include three or four county commissioners, two township officials/supervisors, representatives of The Right Place and Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, a few agribusiness stakeholders, a couple of interested citizens not in agribusiness, individuals with agribusiness or economics academic backgrounds, and a representative of a local foundation or philanthropic organization.

Saalfeld said the topic of farmland preservation was raised in public comments at the commission’s November budget meetings, as has happened at past budget meetings. He noted that former commissioner Sandi Frost Steensma said then that perhaps there should be a task force formed to look into all aspects of supporting agribusiness in Kent County.

“This is going to address a lot more than that one issue (farmland preservation), but that was certainly the point that got the whole process going,” Saalfeld told the Business Journal after the executive committee meeting.

Farmland preservation would not be the focus of the proposed community work group, he added. “This is going to be a much broader thing. That is just what got the discussion started.”

Saalfeld, a corporate attorney, grew up on a farm in Nebraska and owns farmland there that he leases to farmers.

Kent County has had a somewhat controversial Purchase of Development Rights farmland preservation program since 2002, although Saalfeld said he does not think county tax revenue should be used for that purpose; he maintains it is supposed to be funded through state and federal grants, plus contributions by individuals and philanthropic organizations.

Saalfeld has said repeatedly that there are other ways to preserve farmland from development, such as zoning, that ought to be considered.

He said if the public concern is to maintain a suitable quantity of farmland for agricultural production in Kent County, “then the question becomes: What things can we do in the county, beyond this one thing (PDR) that gets talked about all the time, to further promote agribusiness in Kent County?

“I think we do a disservice to our community when we only focus on this single issue of PDR, because there’s so much more out there that we can be talking about to promote agribusiness within the county.”

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