East Lansing — President Barack Obama said Friday no state reflects what the country has gone through during his first five years in office like Michigan, praising the state’s comeback along with the auto industry and agricultural sector.
Obama said signing the five-year farm bill shows the Congress can pass bipartisan legislation that helps the economy and he looks forward to pursuing other initiatives — such as raising the federal minimum wage and passing immigration reform that would help farmers like Leelanau County fruit farmer Ben LaCross who have trouble finding workers to pick crops.
The farm bill has far-reaching effects on several sectors of the economy, from energy to housing and food assistance for the poor, Obama said with two John Deere tractors, a gravity wagon and bales of alfalfa hay behind him on the stage. He said Michigan State University shows how research and innovation can help the country.
“The farm bill is not just about helping farmers. It’s like a Swiss army knife,” Obama said before an invitation-only crowd of 500 jammed inside inside MSU’s Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center, an equestrian barn.
The president noted the farm bill provides a variety of benefits, such as crop insurance for farmers who experience devastated crops, support for farmers’ markets, biofuel development and expansion of rural broadband Internet. It also subsidizes food stamps for the poor.
“It helps make sure America’s children don’t go hungry,” Obama said.
Obama signed the farm bill at about 2:40 p.m.
During the speech, he promoted the launching of a new “Made in Rural America” initiative to promote exporting agricultural goods.
Obama praised U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Lansing Democrat and Senate Agricultural Committee chairwoman, for helping to shepherd the farm bill through Congress. He also recognized U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and retiring Sen. Carl Levin, the Detroit Democrat who is the Senate Armed Forces chairman — “especially when it comes to our men and women in uniform.”
The president also praised the university’s men’s football and basketball teams, joking that he was in East Lansing to do some scouting for his March Madness college basketball tournament brackets.
About the Rose Bowl-winning Spartan football team, he joked: “You guys are greedy.”
Conservative critics used the president’s appearance to draw attention to the problems with Obama’s Affordable Care Act. About 60 sign-wielding members of the MSU College Republicans and Hillsdale College Republicans protested Obamacare Friday afternoon as the president’s motorcade drove along North Shaw Lane.
The students protested for about 35 minutes following Obama’s farm bill signing.
Omar Delarosa, 29, was among the protesters and said he thinks they got across their message.
"They wanted to have their voices heard," said Delarosa, who is deputy communications manager for the Michigan Republican Party. “It’s affecting them in a very real way; Obamacare’s expensive and they’re worried they won't have a job.”
Stabenow kicked off Obama’s visit to MSU by touting the economic, energy, environmental, fiscal and nutritious benefits of the 2014 farm bill he signed.
“This is an economic development bill that’s going to help rural businesses get broadband internet so they can get more customers,” Stabenow said. “This is a deficit reduction bill that saves taxpayers $23 billion.”
Stabenow’s opening remarks were an homecoming of sorts for her, being an MSU graduate and Lansing resident.
Obama’s visit to MSU marks a rare bill signing ceremony outside of Washington, and a unique opportunity for the state’s agriculture research to step into the national spotlight.
Air Force One landed at Capital City Airport in Lansing at 12:12 p.m., according to a press pool report. Traveling with the president were Stabenow, Levin and Kildee. Also accompanying the president were Democratic Sens. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota along with Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Townshp, who is running for Levin’s open Senate seat, joined the delegation at the bill signing ceremony.
Only Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero greeted Obama as he got off the plane, shaking his hand, according to the press pool report. About 50 Democratic and GOP members of Congress were invited to the bill signing and seven accepted — none of them Republicans, said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
At 12:55 p.m., Obama arrived at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute in Lansing, where he toured and learned about agricultural research enabled by the federal government’s farm bill. The president and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, accompanied by MSU President Lou Anna Simon, heard presentations by the institute’s chief business officer Allan Julian and MSU professor Bruce Dale, according to a pool report.
The president, who wore clear plastic safety glasses on the tour, witnessed demonstrations of biomass processing and industrial fermentation.
During the biotechnology plant tour, Obama greeted several employees and was shown how to convert agricultural “residues,” such as corn stover and wheat straw, into bio-based fuels, chemicals, and animal feeds, according to a pool report.
Obama told pool reporters that the mulch-like material he observed was a byproduct of corn: “What we're doing here is finding more efficient ways to convert it into usable pellets that can enhance the feeding of livestock, to a whole host of other things.” He said the process is “energy efficient and environmentally sound.”
The presidential visit takes on added significance because Obama lunched with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, whose city is going through the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy. The lunch was held at the biotechnology institute, which is owned by the Michigan State University, according to a pool report.
Obama gave a shout-out for the Motor City mayor, reporting that Duggan said Detroit is open for business. The president has been repeatedly briefed on Detroit’s financial woes over the last six months and was briefed ahead of his lunch with Duggan.
When Vice President Joe Biden dined last month with Duggan in Detroit, he said the federal government would not provide a bailout to help the city exit bankruptcy, but it would look for ways to help the Motor City with existing federal money and resources.
Duggan said Friday morning he'll lobby the president about creating opportunities for businesses in Detroit.
“I’m not asking for a check. I’m not asking for a bailout. That’s not me,” said Duggan, who added he was surprised and honored by Obama’s lunch invitation.
“There is a fundamental inequality of opportunity in this country. Too many residents in Detroit are being left out of the economic recovery. I have some very specific ideas on things we can do to create opportunity for business creation and jobs for Detroit residents.”
The signing of the farm bill was hailed by Michigan leaders.
“Michigan’s $96 billion food and agriculture sector continues to be one of our state’s leading economic mainstays,” Snyder said in a Friday statement. “ ... Clearly, Michigan is poised to remain among the top agricultural states for decades to come. The farm bill helps to provide certainty for one of our most vital industry sectors.”
Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, was the top-ranking state official in attendance Friday because Snyder had a prior lunch-time speaking engagement at a Detroit Regional Chamber event in Detroit.
Clover Adams said the new five-year farm bill provides better assistance to all aspects of the state’s agricultural and food production industries. She said the addition of crop insurance for specialty crops such as potatoes, cherries, apples, asparagus and sugar beets was crucial to Michigan after a spring 2012 freeze and summer-time drought wiped out the state’s cherry crop and wreaked havoc on the apple harvest.
“For Michigan, I think it covered the waterfront and I think that’s thanks to Sen. Stabenow,” Clover Adams told The Detroit News. “She took very good care of Michigan agriculture and things that we needed.”
Friday’s event is one of the few times Obama has held a bill signing ceremony outside of Washington and the first at a university, said Allan J. Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University. Obama signed the economic stimulus bill in Denver in February 2009 and the America Invents Act patent reform at an Alexandria, Va., high school in September 2011.
The signing has drawn attention to the farm bill that overcame more than two years of partisan and regional differences and was approved this week by Congress. The 959-page compromise legislation has been hailed as a sign bipartisanship can still be achieved in Washington.
“This is really exciting,” said MSU plant pathology professor Ray Hammerschmidt of the presidential visit. “He recognizes the importance of the farm bill and ... the hard work and efforts put in by Sen. Stabenow.”
Few universities in the country have benefited more from the farm bill than MSU. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded more than $26 million in research and development there in 2011 alone — making MSU the eighth highest recipient of competitive agriculture research dollars in the nation.
“There’s a lot of fascinating things in agriculture,” said David Douches, professor and geneticist at MSU who recently developed a new variety of potato that farmers can store longer after harvest.
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities praised the farm bill’s commitment to research. Compared with the 2008 farm bill that expired last year, the new version boosts funding for specialty crop research and organic agriculture and creates a $200 million foundation for food and agriculture research.
“It’s a good bill, no question about it,” said Ian L. Maw, vice president for food, agriculture and natural resources at the Washington-based association.
In all, the research and extension piece of the farm bill amounts to more than $1.25 billion over the decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It’s a small slice of the $956 billion bill but it’s critically important to hundreds of staff and researchers at MSU.
“That’s the part that I’ve been waiting to see funded,” said Rufus Isaacs, an MSU professor of entomology, whose $9 million project to study bee pollination on specialty crops is contingent on the farm bill’s signing. “I’m just happy that it’s going to get done.”
Isaacs has led the farm bill-funded project with researchers around the country to improve the bee pollination of farmers’ specialty crops, like blueberries and apples. But the farm bill’s expiration Sept. 30 put the brakes on the work that’s conducted at 30 farms in west Michigan. MSU floated funding for the research team in the meantime so staff wouldn’t have to be laid off.
“MSU shows that connection of research to farm profitability and farm success really well,” Isaacs said.
Detroit News Staff Writers Darren A. Nichols and Michael Martinez contributed.