Money drys up for ag initiative


    LANSING — When Mari Reijmerink, an organic farmer in Fennville, wanted to expand the variety of her crops, she signed up for a program that offered the opportunity to learn about raspberry growing and provided funding to buy bushes.

    Now, Reijmerink’s Kismet Organics offers organic raspberries to customers when they’re in season. Other farmers have used the program to buy everything from chickens for egg production to storage facilities for winter vegetables.

    The Agriculture Individual Development Account program recruits farmers by offering them a two-to-one fund match. That means for every dollar farmers raise up to $1,000, the program gives them another $2.

    “We hook them in with the money,” said Julie Pioch, co-founder of the program that is run by Michigan State University Extension. “But the program is really about the education and the development of a business plan.”

    According to Pioch, the Van Buren County Extension director, the $2,000 comes with a stipulation that participants must develop a business plan and take educational courses at their own expense. Because the program is part of a larger federal initiative through the Department of Community Health, people earning more than twice the poverty line cannot participate.

    “I’ve had to turn some people away because either they or a spouse made too much money,” Pioch said. “It would be nice if we could have it not only be with low-income people.”

    The federal grant is running out. After March, Pioch will have to turn everyone away unless she and the other co-founder, Susan Cocciarelli, can find another source of funding. Cocciarelli is an outreach specialist at the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU.

    “I’ve talked to the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth about the potential to look at this as an agricultural training program, but I still haven’t been able to secure any funding,” Pioch said. “More funding would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

    It would be nice, especially for farmers for whom Cocciarelli says the extra money can make all the difference.

    Both Cocciarelli and Pioch would like to extend the reach of the program and don’t want it to end. “I’m not going to let this die,” Pioch said. “We know how to do this. We’ve worked out the kinks and right now we’re working on a manual in case anyone else in the state wants to try a similar program.”

    The program, which has been running for five years, has had a total of 16 participants from the MSU student organic farms and Allegan, Ottawa, Van Buren and Kalamazoo counties. It operates only in Southwest Michigan, but Cocciarelli said she would like it to spread throughout the state.

    As to the future of the program, Pioch refuses to lose hope. “I’ll just be optimistic and say no, it’s not going to die. But we’ll have to wait and see,” she said.

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