USDA grants advance regional food systems research

Researchers on staff and affiliated with the Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) have been awarded four grants, totaling $1.95 million, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Researchers on staff and affiliated with the Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) have been awarded four grants, totaling $1.95 million, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The grants, made through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, will support much-needed research on local and regional food systems in Michigan.

In a statewide project, Richard Pirog, CRFS senior associate director, and Judith Barry, CRFS academic specialist, will manage the development of a public-private workgroup model to increase the viability of small and midsized livestock producers in Michigan who want to supply local and regional markets with high-quality meat products. The project was developed by CRFS’s Livestock Work Group, which is composed of MSU faculty, staff and Extension educators.

“This project is a result of convening Michigan meat and livestock stakeholders, who identified challenges associated with producing, processing, marketing and buying within Michigan,” Pirog said. “Although market demand for local and regional meats appears to be increasing, current efforts are not coordinated along the value chain to address the technical and financial challenges of smaller livestock producers, processors and their buyers.”

This project will support a marketing specialist to strengthen networks and business-to-business cooperation among small to midsized livestock producers. CRFS Livestock Work Group members will examine constraints to small and midsized farms through coordinated research projects, with the goal of increasing the volume of and profitability in local and regional meat sales. The project will also build the capacity of a public-private work group model to collectively address value chain challenges unique to these producers and processors.

CRFS Livestock Work Group members collaborating on this project are Richard Ehrhardt, MSU Extension specialist, Craig Harris, MSU sociology associate professor, William Knudson, MSU Product Center marketing economist, Steven Miller, MSU agricultural, food and resource economics assistant professor, Jason Rowntree, MSU animal science assistant professor and Sarah Wells, MSU Extension meat science academic specialist.

In addition to the award to CRFS, NIFA recently announced three grant awards to affiliates of CRFS. Two of those projects are based at the MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center (UPREC) in Chatham, a research site with programmatic emphasis in livestock, plant and local food systems.

At UPREC, Rowntree will lead a project to identify economically feasible grass-finished beef production strategies that build relationships between processors and distributors. These strategies will also support small farms working to meet the demand for locally sourced, grass-finished beef. Faculty members from across the MSU campus will collaborate on this project. They include Wells; Kimberly Cassida, MSU Extension specialist in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences; Matt Raven, professor in the Department of Community Sustainability; Janice Harte, associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition; and Jeannine Schweihofer, an MSU Extension educator.

In another NIFA-funded project, Raven will establish an incubator farm at UPREC. The farm will be a low-risk, experiential learning tool that provides infrastructure to growers interested in entering the agriculture industry. It will provide students and Upper Peninsula residents with hands-on instruction in entrepreneurial, four-season food production. Collaborators on the UPREC incubator farm are John A. Biernbaum, professor in the Department of Horticulture; Laura Schmitt Olabisi, assistant professor in the Department of Community Sustainability; Rowntree and Cassida.

Brent Ross, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, received the fourth NIFA award, to examine collective entrepreneurial action by small and midsized farms. Researchers will study the development of food hubs – businesses or organizations that manage the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products – in Michigan and Missouri. This research will also inform the creation of teaching materials on collective entrepreneurship for undergraduate, graduate and continuing education courses for new and existing agricultural practitioners. Robert Shupp, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics; Randall Westgren and Fabio Chaddad, professors and assistant professor, respectively, of applied economics at the University of Missouri, will partner with Ross on this project.

Each researcher leading the recently funded projects is a CRFS staff member or affiliate, as are many of their collaborators. This connection will provide opportunities for sharing progress and results, facilitate collaboration across projects, and contribute to the collective understanding of regional food systems.

The projects, awarded through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), aim to promote economically, socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture and resilient rural communities. AFRI is NIFA’s flagship competitive grant program and was established under the 2008 Farm Bill. It offers competitive grant funding to support work in six priority areas: plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition and health; renewable energy, natural resources and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities.

This research will also be funded in part by CRFS and MSU AgBioResearch

The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems unites the applied research, education and outreach expertise of faculty and staff members at MSU to advance understanding of and engagement with regional food systems. CRFS organizers envision a thriving economy, equity and sustainability for Michigan, the country and the planet through food systems rooted in local regions and centered on food that is healthy, green, fair and affordable. Find more about the center at

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