What became Michigan State was originally known as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, back when farming was not only our main business, it was just about our only business.
Of course, the founders would be shocked to learn that the new committee chairman will be a woman, and that she had earned two degrees in social work, not farming, at MSU.
Nor did she even grow up on a farm. Debbie Stabenow’s father was a small-town Oldsmobile dealer. But while Oldsmobile has gone extinct in the course of our lifetime, farming hasn’t.
And Senator Stabenow will now be in a position to have a significant impact on the second biggest sector of Michigan’s economy. Farming is receiving renewed attention these days.
For a century, many of us city dwellers took farming for granted. Yes, there was corn, and those cows out there making milk someplace between Lansing and Grand Rapids. They grew cherries up in Traverse City, and grandpa had chickens.
But manufacturing was where it was at. These days, however, manufacturing isn’t what it used to be. Neither are oil prices, and interest in ethanol has caused the growth of even more corn. Plus, there is huge new interest in urban farming. Detroit has lost well over half its peak population; there’s a lot of vacant land, and the people remaining need more fruits and vegetables.
The Senate Agriculture Committee also is responsible for forestry and nutrition issues. Both are vitally important to Michigan. Some crops are more important to us than others; besides cherries, we are big in blueberries, cranberries cucumbers, and flowers.
Dairy products are our biggest agricultural commodity of all.
We once had what amounted to a laissez-faire policy for agricultural products, back when those first students were chopping down trees to built their own dorms in East Lansing before the Civil War.
But that ended long ago. Today, like it or not, the name of the game in agriculture is subsidies. Senator Stabenow will be in a key position to influence who gets what when she shepherds a new farm bill through her committee next year.
She intends to be an activist chair. Her aides say she wants this bill crafted to protect our established farm sectors while developing innovative ways to help new concepts like urban farming in Detroit, and farming with the aid of wind power.
In a way, it is surprising that Stabenow will chair a major Senate committee while still only in her second term. But there’s been a lot of turnover in recent years. The senator isn’t going to have a lot of time to learn on the job, either: She needs to make a splash.
Two years from now, she’ll face what everyone expects will be a tough re-election battle. Even if she wins, she is likely to be wielding the gavel for only a couple years.
The Republicans are thought likely to recapture the senate in two years, even if President Obama wins re-election.
The new senate agriculture chairman has a vested interest in bringing us home the bacon -- and in doing it soon.