Agriculture Forum: Affordable Housing Not Just a Downtown Problem

Story by Maddy Baroli

maddybaroliConsider the range of challenges to agriculture in our region. Invasive pest management? Sure. The daunting ripple effects of climate change? Certainly. But what about the lack of affordable housing for the people who make our regional food system tick? It’s not an issue most immediately associate with local agriculture.

In Traverse City, we have a strong tourist economy that attracts “foodies” and employs seasonal workers. We also have a permanent community that dedicates itself to creating a soulful and resilient regional food system.

This tension between transience and sustainability in our agricultural workforce, in addition to below-average wages, presents a conundrum that existing housing solutions fail to address.

Aspiring farmers, AmeriCorps and FoodCorps service workers, culinary students, food service employees and others are drawn to the region to take part in our impressive local food movement. Where and how do the people working in this food and farming economy live?

Take me for example. Pleased to meet you. I moved into my family’s Northport home after graduating from college to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network. I would not have been able to serve the network without this arrangement, but it mandated that I commute more than an hour each day to Traverse City.

This is a challenge faced by many across our 10-county region.

One solution is to provide on-site housing. David Coveyou, of Coveyou Scenic Farms in Petoskey, said that, “We have evolved to have interns from around the country on our farm that we educate on how to grow organic produce. This approach has required us to have on-farm housing.”

But many farms simply cannot afford this option, and many people pursuing agricultural work do not directly serve a farm. This gave me the idea to explore what a cooperative living community might look like for the diversity of people contributing to our local food and farming system.

A collective approach to housing can bring down living costs and encourage relationships that stimulate a culture of cooperation. Many farmers and business owners agree: This is necessary to strengthen the agricultural economy in the coming years.

Our network partners are excited about a project like this and recognize that there are many potential solutions. The Food and Farming Network, along with our partners at the Groundwork Center and Taste the Local Difference, recently turned in a grant proposal to the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems that would fund a feasibility study on creative housing and financing models for this community.

Affordable housing for food and farming service workers is a fixable problem. It shouldn’t stand in the way of creating a stronger future for our community. So I ask, readers, what creative solutions do you have?

Ideally, we will work together to create something that blurs the lines between life, work and play, forging lasting relationships that creatively leverage long-term positive change in our food and farming community and the regional economy as a whole.

Maddy Baroli is the current VISTA service member serving the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan. Contact her or learn more about this project at www.foodandfarmingnetwork.org.

See the original article via the Traverse City Record-Eagle here.

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