Michigan agriculture proponents step down

Two stalwarts of Michigan agriculture, Phil Korson and Jim Byrum, have retired at the end of 2019.

Jim Byrum (left) and Phil Korson.
Jim Byrum (left) and Phil Korson.

Michigan agriculture will lose two of its biggest stalwarts and significant Michigan State University (MSU) partners this year to retirement.

Phil Korson, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI) and executive director of the Michigan Cherry Committee, and Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association (MABA), both have deep ties to MSU — first as students and then as allies who have worked tirelessly to help advance agriculture in the Great Lakes state.

KORSON: A TRUE VISIONARY

Doug Buhler, director of MSU AgBioResearch and MSU assistant vice president for research and innovation, has spent countless hours with Korson discussing emerging and long-term research needs when it comes to Michigan-grown cherries.

“Phil cares about those face-to-face interactions, and he values relationships,” Buhler said. “Since I joined MSU, Phil has been a wonderful partner and resource. You simply can’t replace his wealth of knowledge and passion for working on behalf of the cherry industry and plant agriculture as a whole. He has a deep understanding of research and has valued the role that MSU plays in that regard.”

In addition to industry and research knowledge, Korson is personable and outgoing. Buhler said he even makes it a point to hand deliver the annual investment check from CMI — funds contributed by commodity organizations to conduct research into emerging issues facing the various industries.

Recently, Korson has been leading the charge against an invasive pest known as spotted-wing drosophila, as well as international trade practices.

Amy Iezzoni, a researcher and professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture who works with cherry genetics, breeding and rootstock selection, said she appreciates the expertise and heightened awareness that Korson brings to her and other scientists.

“Having an open door to talk with Phil anytime has been great,” Iezzoni said. “He’s been a huge supporter of grant proposals and funding for research at the state and national levels. His retirement will leave a void not only in cherries but in specialty crops as a whole.”

Before representing Michigan cherry growers — who produce 75 percent of U.S. tart cherries — Korson grew up surrounded by orchards in Leelanau County.

Ironically, however, his career began down a different path. After graduating from MSU with a degree in dairy science and management, Korson leased a facility and spent only a few months running a dairy operation. Looking for something to do in the off months, he accepted a part-time position with Michigan Farm Bureau in the Red Tart Cherry Division of the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association (MACMA). When it came time to return to the dairy farm, MACMA asked him to join the group on a full-time basis.

“That was the end of the shortest dairy farming career I know of,” Korson joked. “But I was really intrigued by MACMA, and it gave me a chance to have a larger impact on agriculture, especially with an industry that means so much to me.”

Korson spent nearly 10 years with MACMA before joining the Michigan Cherry Committee and CMI. Throughout his 30-year career, Korson has delved into policymaking and program development. His knowledge, foresight and ability to unify people have led to the creation of multiple statewide agriculture programs. He’s also renowned for securing specialty crop funding at the national level.

Among Korson’s numerous contributions is Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs), an initiative he helped to create that he calls an invaluable tool for Michigan’s plant agriculture community. It unites MSU, commodity organizations, growers and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to provide strategic funding to tackle short- and long-term plant agriculture challenges.

“Project GREEEN has been unbelievable for our industry, and it’s been so well-supported,” Korson said. “I’ve told a lot of people that I’d like to think we were really smart when we designed Project GREEEN, but the fact is that we are lucky to have a bunch of great people involved.

“The unique thing is that Project GREEEN was built on trust. It takes all of the partners working together to focus on the most relevant topics. We didn’t put specifics in the legislative language. Every year we update our research priorities. It means that we’re addressing the top issues every year, and that’s been critically important.”

Of MSU AgBioResearch’s 14 off-campus research centers, four are geared heavily toward tree fruit research: Clarksville Research Center in Clarksville, Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center in Traverse City, Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center in Benton Harbor, and Trevor Nichols Research Center in Fennville.

When years of declining funding at MSU forced leaders to consider consolidation in 2013, Korson was part of a meeting that Buhler convened. The team quickly learned that each center plays a pivotal part in some aspect of tree fruit research.

Building on the success of Project GREEEN, a proposal was developed for a program based on Public Act 232, which allows commodity organizations to form and collect grower funding to advance the industry.

The Michigan Tree Fruit Commission was created in 2014, with a particular focus on upgrading research center infrastructure. Because the partner commodities — apple, cherry, peach and plum — and other collaborating organizations already perform administrative services, every dollar of grower funding goes toward advancing research capacity and technology. The program helped keep all four research centers open and enabled critical infrastructure and planting updates.

Earlier this year, growers voted overwhelmingly to support the program for another five years.

“Even during challenging economic times, the partners continue to praise programs such as Project GREEEN and the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission,” Korson said. “It’s a great example of the value of these programs, which are set up to flourish long into the future.”

BYRUM: CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO

Adhering to the norm is simply not part of Jim Byrum’s ethos. He’s not afraid to take a controversial stance, even in agriculture, which is often viewed as insular and resistant to change.

As president of MABA, Byrum has the responsibility of challenging conventional thinking for the benefit of its members, who range from farmers and seed companies to foodprocessors and insurance providers. They rely on MABA to position them for success and to keep them up-to-date on the state of agriculture throughout the supply chain.

“We have a strong relationship with our membership, which is really farmers, those who supply things to farmers and those who handle things farmers produce,” Byrum said. “Our organization is known for taking progressive stances, particularly on emerging issues, because we’re trying to understand how we can help agriculture become as sustainable as possible.”

Education and training programs underpin MABA’s efforts, as well as state- and federal-level advocacy. For example, Byrum has emphasized the need to address climate change and its potential effects on production agriculture. He appreciates how MSU can contribute to the ongoing conversation.

“Climate change has a huge effect on agriculture, and MSU research is helping us understand how changes in soil and rainfall, for example, necessitate doing things differently,” Byrum said. “These are issues we have to act on now or it will be too late.”

Buhler said he believes it’s this type of passion that makes Byrum a strong, relentless leader.

“I have enjoyed working with Jim because he asks hard questions,” Buhler said. “Jim pushes the envelope, and it’s that mentality that drives innovation and new ways of thinking.”

Dru Montri, director of government and stakeholder relations for the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, agrees.

“Working with people who challenge me is something I value tremendously. Jim does just that,” Montri said. “He’s well-respected across Michigan agriculture because he pushes us to be better.”

Byrum’s enthusiasm for agriculture began as a child growing up on a farm in Onondaga, Michigan. He lives on the farm with his wife — the fourth generation of the family to do so. They lease the land to an area farmer, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat.

An MSU graduate with a degree in public affairs management, Byrum began working in sales with a seed and chemical company. A portion of his sales territory included the Thumb region of Michigan, where he began to establish close ties to dry bean growers.

He eventually left sales to become executive director of the Michigan Bean Commission. He held the post for more than 20 years, advocating on behalf of dry bean growers and paving the way for both domestic and international market expansion.

A well-established figure in Michigan agriculture by this point, Byrum was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. After a short stint in that role, he joined MABA.

“My experiences have given me great perspectives on several areas within agriculture,” Byrum said. “Michigan is a unique state in terms of agricultural diversity. To remain competitive nationally and internationally, it’s important to have partners such as MSU to help with agronomy, applied research and outreach.”

Byrum is a particular champion of Food@MSU, an MSU AgBioResearch initiative that seeks to bridge the gap between consumers and agriculture through conversation. A key component of the effort is Our Table, public discussions featuring some of the foremost experts in food.

“MSU serves as a facilitator to bring about change in our industry, and Food@MSU is a new way to think about that,” Byrum said. “I think agriculture is moving from a production-focused industry to a consumer-driven one. People care about their food and about the environment, and they’re demanding more of those who produce food.”

Byrum believes the future of agriculture is bright because of a growing number of engaged young leaders.

“We have so many capable young people,” Byrum said. “That’s part of the reason it’s time for me to retire. A mark of a good leader is to know when to step away, and that time is now for me. I hope to stay around the industry, but it’s in good hands.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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