The concept of environmental sustainability is gaining momentum in popular culture today, but Michigan has long been ahead of the curve.
In 1998, a coalition of farmers, commodity groups, state and federal agencies, and conservation and environmental groups established the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which is a voluntary program aimed at preventing or minimizing agricultural pollution risks and promoting land stewardship.
To say the innovative program is a success would be a massive understatement, as it recently celebrated 5,000 verifications and is continuing to include farmers across the state.
“We strive to educate farmers about environmental laws and regulations that may impact their operations now or in the future,” says Joe Kelpinski, MAEAP program manager with the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD). “We then work with them to assess and mitigate those risks to the point where they can be verified by MAEAP. We can help farmers minimize their fuel use, reduce contaminated water runoff and assist with nutrient management, for example. We’re proud to say we work with – not against – farmers.”
MAEAP Supports Farms of All Sizes
Open to all Michigan farmers, MAEAP is a free program helping participants employ cost-effective practices that reduce erosion and runoff into ponds, streams and rivers.
Farmers can earn MAEAP recognition in one or more of four areas, including farmstead; cropping; livestock; and forest, wetlands and habitat. In order to join the program, participants must attend an educational workshop, invite a local MAEAP technician to tour their farm and implement the practices the technician recommends. Once they’re verified, farmers receive an MAEAP sign to showcase their status on their property.
“We send experts to help farmers walk through the process in person, so they’re never alone,” Kelpinski says. “Although it’s easier for some farmers to earn their verifications than others, it’s certainly not impossible for anyone, and we are always here to help. In fact, most farmers say it’s fairly simple to comply with MAEAP standards.”
Matthew Moersch, CEO of Moersch Hospitality Group, says going through the MAEAP verification process was a no-brainer for each of his company’s brands: Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant in Buchanan, Round Barn Estate in Baroda and Free Run Cellars in Berrien Springs.
“Moersch Hospitality Group has focused on being sustainable and taking care of our land since we began several years ago, and we were already doing most of the things required for verification by MAEAP. It just made sense to be part of this incredible, free program and market ourselves as such,” says Moersch, who also serves as founder and chairman of the Great Lakes Sustainable Wine Alliance (GLSWA) and vice president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative. “MDARD’s Josh Appleby made it so easy for us to earn our verification and walked us through the process from start to finish, and I really appreciated his passion. Being part of MAEAP has been nothing but fantastic and I see no reason for every farm in Michigan not to get verified.”
A National Model
Due to its strong and continued success, the MAEAP model is being replicated across the nation.
For example, Moersch says the GLSWA is based on MAEAP and recognizes members of the Michigan Wine Collaborative who are verified through the program. In addition, many states – including Missouri, where the Missouri Agricultural Stewardship Assurance Program launched in 2015 – have created voluntary programs aimed at promoting sustainability in ag and land stewardship after learning about MAEAP, often closely following its structure.
“People from other states are very interested in MAEAP and have asked me how we got started, the biggest challenges we’ve faced and how we’ve made it highly successful,” Kelpinski says. “Several states have adapted at least part of what we do with MAEAP to establish their own programs, and many consider us the granddaddy of legislative stewardship verification programs in the U.S. – that’s something we take great pride in.”
There are three phases that must be completed in order to become MAEAP verified:
1. Education involves farmer attendance at a qualified MAEAP educational session. Held across the state, these sessions introduce farmers to MAEAP and update them on new and emerging regulations and opportunities affecting agriculture.
2. On-farm risk assessment focuses on evaluating environmental risks and devising farm-specific and economically viable solutions. Each MAEAP system implements a unique risk assessment tool developed to address the environmental impacts of that system.
3. Third-party verification is where MDARD verifies the farm after the requirements of Phase 1 and 2 are met, the state’s Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices are being followed, and the farm has implemented practices specific to system requirements.
When verification requirements are successfully met, producers receive recognition for their accomplishments and access to incentives. With an ongoing commitment to use environmentally sound management practices, and to maintain MAEAP verification, producers must request an MDARD visit every three years.