SODUS, Mich. — The Michigan Department of Agriculture’s farming programs dodged a bullet.
Without a $195,000 fund transfer approval that came through early June, 11 people would have been laid off in the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s environmental stewardship division, killing two of the department’s programs and crippling a third.
In May, the Michigan Department of Agriculture announced a $6.8 million budget reduction, which hit hardest its environmental stewardship division.
The funding transfer approval, which allowed for a transfer of money out of a bovine tuberculosis risk mitigation bank into the environmental stewardship division, allowed the division to keep eight of the endangered employees, only eliminating three student positions.
The department as a whole has already laid off employees in its finance and executive divisions, as well as in other programs.
An executive order by Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued May 5 ordered a $10.7 million cut. That number was offset by $3.9 million with funding shifts, bringing the total budget cut down to $6.8.
Areas affected the most include Michigan’s Migrant Labor Housing program, Right-to-Farm program, and the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program. The latter two were in danger of being terminated.
“They’re two really important programs for the department, and to see them eliminated, even for a limited time, would have been pretty dramatic for the farming industry,” said Jim Johnson, director of the environmental stewardship division.
A total of $345,000 was cut from the environmental stewardship division, which houses the three programs, Johnson said. Most of that was from the Migrant Labor Housing program, $150,000, while the environmental assurance program lost $100,000 and the Right-to-Farm lost $95,000.
The Migrant Labor Housing Program will continue at about two-thirds capabity. The funding transfer only benefits the other two programs.
The program will move three of its seven employees July 1, bringing it down to only four inspectors. The program certifies migrant labor housing and is only about half way through its yearly 800 inspections.
“This is a really bad time,” Johnson said. “We still have 400 to do, and right now we think we’ll get to half of the remaining inspections.”
So 25% of the housing applicants will go without their licenses this year.
The good news, Johnson said, is that both federal law — the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act — and state regulations allow housing to be occupied if an application was made in the proper matter and if the housing is in licensable condition.
As for the other two programs, they were in danger of being cut completely, but will now be able to operate, at least until the end of the fiscal year.
Fred Leitz, partner in Sodus-based Leitz Farms, said the environmental assurance program is voluntary but was used by a lot of growers.
“They did an assessment, and if you passed it showed farmers were doing what they should for the environment,” Leitz said.
The program consists of three types of environmental audits, two which apply to fresh produce.
“As we come out of the winter and spring, we have 100 verifications pending,” Johnson said. “We haven’t been to all 100.”
The program has three field staff members, one program manager and a half-time administrative support person, all of which were sweating their jobs until the fund transfer.
The Right-to-Farm program serves as nuisance protection for farmers and ranchers and is especially used in southwest and western Michigan, where there has been a lot of urban encroachment in formerly rural areas, Johnson said.
The department also is discontinuing the state’s seed testing program, along with reducing its export inspections, “delaying exports of Michigan … agriculture products to the global marketplace,” according to a document sent to agricultural producers in the state.
The agriculture development fund also was hit hard, taking a $5 million cut and eliminating the Agriculture Innovation Grants. The money for that program only passed through the department, so there are no staff losses there.
“We’re more concerned about extension programs, ones that get into fields, help growers apply research in field situations,” said Duane Frens, general manager of Hudsonville-based Michigan Celery Promotion Cooperative Inc. “It’s not just the Department of Agriculture. All funding going to universities is down. If you don’t have the money, it’s hard to spend it.”
The department’s next challenge is to budget for fiscal year 2010, which begins Oct. 1.
“It’s really been a struggle to figure out how to put all those pieces together,” Johnson said.