By Jeremy C. Nagel
One of my job’s best perks is regular exposure to the rural Michigan landscape I’ve been fascinated with since I was a wanderlusty teenager with a crisp new drivers’ license. Now, after 18 years of roaming the countryside and learning agriculture directly from farmers, other components of the landscape their farms dominate pop up and flag me down like they need a jump.
The current example is the ubiquitous gravel pit, active or grown over, with or without a rust-frozen dragline excavator standing guard. They’re pretty much everywhere because, in addition to carving out and filling up the Great Lakes, the Ice Age glaciers left behind a glorious treasure of sand, gravel and other mineral goodies we’ve been scooping up ever since.
From the Ice Age let’s fast-forward about 10,000 years to the mid-1600s, when the earliest French-Canadian trappers and traders started plying the woods and waters here in search of profitable pelts. Ever since that lucrative fur trade began almost 400 years ago, our pleasant peninsulas have offered every generation of human inhabitants ample opportunity to make a buck off the abundant natural resources here in the middle of the Great Lakes basin.
Following the lead of the region’s native inhabitants, it wasn’t long before the European newcomers got wise to the rich mineral deposits in the western Upper Peninsula, sparking the mining boom in the mid-1800s and eventually putting the ‘copper’ in Copper Country.
Michigan’s great logging era kicked off shortly thereafter and exploded in the late 19th century. Soon our young state would lead the nation in producing the lumber that literally built cities across the region. By the early 20th century, Michigan was almost completely deforested, clearing the way for the increasingly prosperous agriculture sector central to our lives today.
In the background, though, the menu of other natural resources broadened and replenished.
Thanks largely to the Civilian Conservation Corps’ reforestation work during the Great Depression, most of the cut-over land unsuitable for farming was quickly bristling again with trees. Today those mature, second-growth forests are now being harvested — and more judiciously than during the first timber boom, with an eye on conservation and scientific management to prolong their practical cultivation far into the future.
Mining also continued with the discovery and extraction of vital raw commodities like limestone, salt, gypsum, and all that sand and gravel the glaciers left behind. (Finally, back to gravel pits!)
Between those landforms, in the depths of our great freshwater seas, there swam yet another quiet bounty for the tapping. Commercial fishing on the Great Lakes has seen better days than today, and despite being ravaged by invasive species, manmade pollution and dubious governmental priorities, the potential for a revived, prosperous fishery here is not exactly science fiction.
Why the history lesson?
Many of agriculture’s priorities are based in or at least closely linked to the prudent management of the Great Lakes basin’s abundant natural resources: the air, water, flora & fauna, the soil and what’s underneath it... Managing those resources responsibly means (in part) your grandchildren’s grandchildren just might make a go of farming deep in the distant future.
To that end, where might there be opportunities for teaming up with our cousins in other natural resource-based industries? Farm Bureau takes pride in representing Michigan’s farm sector, but ours is not the only voice in Lansing. Among the organizations representing other natural resource-based industries, are there potential allies — other choir members with which to harmonize our voice?