Southeast Michigan Small Farm Needs Assessment cover page.

Southeast Michigan Small Farm Needs Assessment


Author: , ; updated from original needs assessment by Jae Gerhart and Marissa Schuh


Throughout the winter of 2018-2019, Marissa Schuh and Jae Gerhart, MSU Extension personnel serving Southeast Michigan, launched a comprehensive assessment to better understand programmatic needs of Southeast Michigan’s small farm population . The data gathered expands the work of the MSU Extension 2015-16 Issues Identification process. Survey data was collected from 75 Southeast Michigan small farmers representing the nine counties of District 11 and 12 and Ingham County. Subsequently, a focus group of 18 farmers added qualitative, topic-specific data to the assessment.



Almost 73% of the respondents were beginning farmers , farming on 10 acres or less. The majority of the respondents produce vegetables (54). Other top types of production identified include meat animals (21), orchard/fruit production (19) and flower production (16).

Familiarity with MSU Extension

78% of respondents reported having utilized MSU Extension resources at least once. But they generally desire more hands-on training and education in Southeast Michigan (less than a 1.5 hour drive from their farms) on topics applicable to producing sustainably and organically. MSU Extension programs have helped small farmers:

  • Increase their skills, knowledge, or expertise
  • Connect with buyers along the supply chain
  • Increase production efficiency

Small farmers desire a resource hub with curated content for small farms.

Ideas for Programming by Commodity

Vegetable Production

Desired topics for education:

  • Managing plant disease (47.5%)
  • Fertility management practices (42.4%)
  • Connecting to alternative wholesale buyers (39%)
  • Managing weeds (37.3%)
  • Managing insects (37.3%
  • Determining sales price based on cost-of-production (37.3%)
  • General requirements of FSMA (35.6%)
  • Harvest systems (35.6%)
  • Record-keeping (28.8%)
  • Creating a traceability system (27.1%)
  • General criteria for GAP (27.1%)
  • Connecting to wholesale buyers (25.4%)

Desired format for education:

  • Written publication: topics related to post-harvest handling
  • Class/workshop: topics related to business management
  • On-farm assistance: topics related to production

Animal Agriculture

Commonly produced animals:

  • Poultry (77%)
  • Beef Cattle (59%)
  • Swine (50%)
  • Small Ruminants (45%)
  • Horses (13%)
  • Dairy (9%)
  • Eggs (commonly listed in "other")

Desired topics for education:

  • Pasture management (71.4%)
  • Local processing/slaughterhouse options (66.7%)
  • Direct-to-consumer marketing (61.9%)
  • Licensing and regulation (57.1%)
  • Organic-specific management practices (52.4%)
  • Manure management (52.4%)
  • Connecting to alternative wholesale buyers (52.4%)
  • Daily management practices (47.6%)
  • Determining sales price based on cost-of-production (47.6%)
  • Nutrition (47.6%)
  • Herd/flock health (42.9%)
  • State licensing and regulation (42.9%)
  • Connecting to wholesale buyers (38.1%)
  • Sales management software (33.3%)
  • Transportation (33.3%)
  • Taxes (28.6%)
  • Genetics and selection of animals (23.8%)
  • Managing cash-flow (23.8%)
  • Improving sales at farmers market (19%)

General points of interest:

Highlighted in both the online survey and the focus group meeting:

  • Lack of accessible local processing and slaughterhouse facilities for small farmers.
  • Concerns about licensing and regulation, of which difficulties with the consistency of expectations in inspectors.

Fruit and Orchard Production

  • 22 of the 74 farms surveyed produce fruit or manage an orchard.
  • Concentrated in Washtenaw, Oakland and Wayne counties.
  • Likely to also produce vegetables.
  • Half identified as beginning farmer, the other half have farmed for more than 10 years.

Desired topics of education:

  • Managing plant disease (71.4%)
  • Managing weeds (50%)
  • Managing insects (50%)
  • Creating a traceability system (50%)
  • Crop scheduling (42.9%)
  • Fertility management practices (42.9%)
  • Connecting to alternative wholesale buyers (42.9%)
  • Record-keeping (42.9%)
  • Determining sales price based on cost-of-production (42.9%)


  • Of the 13 floriculture respondents, 61.5% had been farming under 10 years.
  • 46% were located in Washtenaw County, producing on ten acres or less.
  • 69% had vegetables on the farm.

Field Crops

  • Only seven respondents reported having field crops on their operation. This is likely a reflection of the distribution lists used to send out the survey.
  • Four were growing on more than 51 acres, with varied number of years of experience.
  • Areas that field crop growers in the survey wanted to receive information on included cover crops, managing weeds and managing insects.

Other Subjects


Small farmers engage in a wide variety of agritourism activities on their farms, which could provide some difficulty for creating a one-size-fits-all program around the issue. Of those reporting agritourism activities on their farm, 38% reported concerns about local ordinances and regulation.

The most popular activities include:

  • U-pick (50%)
  • School tours (40%)
  • Farm Dinners (30%)
  • Hay rides (30%)

Food System Design and Collaboration

Participants mentioned multiple times the desire for increased collaboration among farmers as well as with other food system stakeholders. This was often presented as a survival technique for overcoming the challenges of small-scale farming. A desire for opportunities for informal and formal networking and skills sharing was highlighted. One participant brought forth the fact that competition for small farms is against a larger system, not against each other, but the reality of the present market is that direct-to-consumer sales are saturated. A strong farmer network creates a safety net.

Participants spent a decent part of the conversation discussing the racial and economic inequities of the food system. It was identified that there is privilege inherent in who can start farms and who can afford to buy locally-produced food.

Concerns over the effects of climate change on farming surfaced in the conversation. Specific concerns included more difficult weed management due to rain cycles, increased intensity of droughts and floods, and new pests and diseases.

Participants particularly craved consumer education related to prices and seasonality. They mentioned that their prices were often higher than typical grocery store prices and wanted consumers to understand the reasons why this was the case.

Policy Ideas

  • GAAMPS expanded to include urban farmers
  • Shorter turn-around time for USDA loans/grants
  • Carbon credits to incentivize climate change mitigation
  • Financial incentives to build soil organic matter (similar to the financial incentives for mitigating phosphorus run-off)
  • Transparency at farmers markets about growers who resell food o Update the MDARD website for more user-friendliness

Research Ideas

  • Organic solutions for weed management and pest control
  • Advanced-level hoop house planting schedules and succession planting
  • Economic models beyond the farmers market sales channels
  • Carbon sequestration in relation to organic farming/grazing practices



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