authored by CSS 424 students in Fall 2020, based on interviews with former MIFFS leaders

“MIFFS is an organization of the heart”

– Jim Marshall 

Michigan Food & Farming Systems (MIFFS) is a nonprofit organization that in 1994 branched off of the Michigan Agricultural Stewardship Association (MASA), an organization that was born out of the sustainable agriculture movement in Michigan during the late 80s. MIFFS was created by professors and farmers who cared about sustainable agriculture and was awarded with an Integrated Farming Operation grant from the Kellogg Foundation. With this grant, in 1998,  MIFFS was able to achieve non-profit status of its own. While all this was happening, the infamous class-action lawsuit against the USDA for discrimination against Black farmers in their ability to access farm loans and programs, Pigford v. Glickman was occuring. Many of the claimants were Michigan farmers and MIFFS saw this as an opportunity to work with underserved communities and those restricted from the programs that were only available to white, male farmers. 

“When I think of the culture and roots of MIFFS, he [Dr. Ray] is one of the strong roots”

Michelle Napier-Dunnings (MIFFS Executive Director from Spring 2012 – Spring 2016)

A key figure in MIFFS ability to help these communities was Dr. Leroy R. Ray Jr. Dr. Ray’s legacy includes the Farm Research Cooperative (FRC), the Michigan Black rodeo, and the Hands-On Science Training program. His lifelong work focused on inspiring minority youth and small farmers to learn about science, agriculture and nature. This led to him and the executive director of MIFFS at the time, Tom Guthrie, who also worked at the Michigan Farm Bureau, to come together and created the annual Michigan Family Farms Conference, which focused on farmers of color and small scale farmers. The response to the first conference in 2003 was positive, “only 50 people at most were expected, but 100 came, and it kept growing from there” – Sandy Penn. With the grant money to support it, the conference became a big focal point for the organization and even with the deaths of Tom Guthrie and Dr. Ray, the conference still continued to grow and now presents awards in their name and memory. 

Tom Guthrie, his passion was all about a small farm and the family farm,… [he] saw the erosion of the family farm, essentially, and the displacement by larger and larger enterprises. Tom saw the opportunity to play into the more value added market space.  Another try… instead of just selling a commodity to the local grain elevator.”

Joe Colyn 

MIFFS continued to support the Michigan Family Farms Conference throughout the years while assisting farmers around the state. One of the ways MIFFS initiated some large-scale impact on the agriculture structure in the United States was through the creation of the “receipt for service” system for farmers applying for financial assistance. There was noticeable bias occurring by many of the offices providing access to agricultural funds. Oftentimes farmers would go in asking for access to resources or funding, be deceived by an office not willing to help them get funding, and there would be no documentation of the process. Morse Brown, a previous board member and contractor with MIFFS, realized how effective a receipt of service would be for documenting the reasons for being denied access to funding. This allowed for accountability with the organizations that were supposed to be helping all farmers but were discriminative. This program was adopted by the Farm Service Agency to prevent unjust denial of assistance in 2008.

“Farmers would go in and… the local office would say they did not have funds when, in fact, they did have funds… the farmer didn’t write anything and the office didn’t write anything down they would just turn them away and away they went.” 

Morse Brown

Around 2010 Michelle Napier-Dunnings became director of MIFFS and fostered a relationship with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Her incredible facilitation skills allowed MIFFS to continue to develop their role in Michigan, connecting the organization with many of the incredible people present today. In 2011, the Michigan GroupGap Pilot in the Upper Peninsula began, demonstrating the potential of small-scale farmers being able to implement the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, contrary to the norm of larger scale operations being assisted by the USDA. GroupGap connected farmers together on ironing out the technical aspects of the certification, allowing for a network of support. In 2015, the Michigan Group GAP Network (MGGN) was created. 

Connecting the people in Michigan’s agriculture system together enables a stronger functioning food system as a whole. From 2014 to 2015 the Women Farmer Network Program, Veteran Farmer Network Program, and Hispanic Farmer Network Program were all established, connecting several Michigan farming communities together. 

In 2016, Jen Silveri became a part of MIFFS. She is now the director of field operations and continues to help lead MIFFS forward as the organization finds their place in the ever changing landscape of Michigan Agriculture. Her experience with Michigan’s Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) program and background in groundwater stewardship has given her insight into the resources within Michigan and the value of sustainable systems and natural resource management. She is now an essential part in leading MIFFS in their goal of assisting farmers in reaching the resources that should be readily available to them. 

As Sandy Penn said “all these little pieces are all over, and even the government people don’t know all the pieces.” MIFFS has been a key component in identifying all the disconnected pieces of programs that make accessing resources incredibly difficult. Learning the framework of these programs and guiding people through this process ensures that the programs built to help will help Michigan farmers. 

“We live out of our hearts. And… that’s what, …MIFFS has been so good at doing, was being heart centered. You know, that’s why I love being a part of MIFFS.”

Jim Marshall