By DAVID RUNK
4:35 a.m. CST, February 12, 2011
DETROIT — For Keith Creagh, a 33-year veteran of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the chance to lead the agency as it takes on the broader mission of strengthening the state's rural communities is allowing him to put his passion for agricultural policy back to work.
Creagh left the department in 2007 for the private sector, spending three years with Lansing-based food and animal safety products company Neogen Corp. His return came as new Gov. Rick Snyder gave the department an expanded economic, social, and educational focus.
"By now elevating the importance of rural development -- not at the expense of urban redevelopment, but in consorts with that -- then that actually will allow the various players ... (to) address the needs for those rural communities," Creagh told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview.
In addition to its established role as agricultural regulator and booster, a name change taking effect next month reflects the Republican governor's desire for the department to help food producers and agribusiness play a stronger role in the improvement of rural communities.
In the next six months, Creagh said the renamed Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will turn that charge into action, helping strengthen processors of cherries in the Traverse City area, potatoes in Detroit, meat in the Kalamazoo area and pickles in the state's Thumb region.
"We'll assist them in their expansion efforts by making sure that the economic tools that are necessary for them ... are there," Creagh said.
One change Snyder has made to provide those tools is by adding David Armstrong, president and CEO of GreenStone Farm Credit Services, to the Michigan Economic Development Corp.'s board, bringing his expertise in farmer credit needs to the state agency. And the governor has proposed going even further, lifting restrictions on the 21st Century Jobs Fund so more types of businesses, including agriculture, can be supported by it.
In rural areas such as Cass County in southwestern Michigan, there's interest in partnering with the state on economic development. Last year, the county got a $10.5 million federal loan for improvements to water service for residents and firefighting. And Chuck Clarke, the county's administrator and controller, said there's opportunity to piggyback on the county's main business.
"We could do more in economic development to promote agribusiness" Clarke said. "To open the door to people to do research and development, or other crops."
Since being tapped by Snyder to lead the agriculture department, Creagh has been meeting with other agency heads about how their work can help rural development. They've looked at how projects from the state Department of Transportation, for example, can help economic growth in those areas. And how federal rural development efforts, directed in part through U.S. Department of Agriculture, can work with the state.
"We're engaged in pretty much every economic aspect of a small town," said James Turner, the USDA's Michigan director for rural development. "I'm hopeful that our partnership is going to lead to a better coordination of resources."
Just this week, President Barack Obama's interest in rural development was showcased by his stop in the Upper Peninsula city of Marquette, where he promoted plans that include spending $5 billion for infrastructure to help rural areas access high-speed wireless.
That plan -- as well as Michigan's focus on rural development -- has a supporter in U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Stabenow is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which oversees rural development programs. She said she wants to work closely with Creagh and Snyder on rural development efforts for Michigan, and has asked Creagh to testify Thursday before the committee about the role rural communities have in strengthening Michigan's economy.
"Modernizing our infrastructure in towns and counties throughout Michigan will help small businesses grow and hire more workers," Stabenow said. "Rural development projects also increase the quality of life for people throughout our state by making sure drinking water is safe, supporting local police and firefighters, and lowering energy costs for small businesses and farmers."
The Michigan Farm Bureau supports the new role of the state Agriculture Department, saying it makes sense to bring rural development programs under its umbrella. Bob Boehm, manager of the Farm Bureau's Commodity and Marketing Department, said it is encouraging that agriculture and food-related businesses are being increasingly seen as a way of driving the state's economic recovery.
"There's no reason why we can't have a strong manufacturing sector coming back and a strong resource-based industry like food and agriculture," Boehm said.
Creagh also wants to expand the role Michigan's rural areas play in attracting visitors to the state, including promoting culinary tourism linked to wineries. And he sees room to work with state natural resources officials, for example, bring Internet access to state parks and campgrounds.
"If you're at a state park, you can check your e-mail, you can enjoy wine on the beach and maybe even go fishing in one of the Great Lakes," Creagh said of one approach to encouraging tourism. "That type of a packaged approach is really what we're trying to get at."