David Milligan jokes about having his picture taken for the newspaper, and makes small talk about the weather, but there is one topic about which he is absolutely serious: wheat.
Milligan is chairman of the Michigan Wheat Program and about to begin his third and final three-year term in the role.
In December, he was named chairman of the Research & Technology Committee of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG).
Milligan, 64, has served as supervisor of Elkland Township and as a Tuscola County commissioner — and says his role as an advocate for the wheat industry is vital to Michigan, including many throughout Michigan’s Thumb region.
“It’s a job for farmers to help farmers,” Milligan told The Advertiser. “Nobody else is going to do it. Farmers need to help themselves.
“You can’t wait around,” Milligan said. “Who else is going to do it?”
Milligan said until six years ago, the industry generally didn’t have a singular direction or enough say in its future.
“Wheat’s having a hard time being competitive in the scheme of things — with corn and soybeans, nationally,” he said. “So that’s the big challenge. How do we become competitive? That’s the question, what’s the answer?”
The Michigan Wheat Program was voted in by Michigan’s wheat farmers in 2011. It was in the works prior to that for about a decade and formed using input from farmers, seed and milling industries, food manufacturers, Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan State University, MSU Extension, researchers, and just about anyone else affected by the state’s wheat industry.
Like most commodities, the program is funded through check-offs, or fees paid by farmers based on their respective harvest sizes. Wheat is harvested by nearly 8,000 wheat farms in 50 of Michigan’s 83 counties.
“We had to fill a hole that had been slacked off because Michigan State and the state of Michigan was lacking funding,” Milligan said. “We’ve not only filled that hole, but created a bigger pot of money.”
MWP is controlled by a nine-member board consisting of members appointed by the Michigan governor. Board members represent one of nine districts (one district represents wheat millers) and Milligan represents district seven, which consists of Tuscola and Huron counties and is the highest yielding district in terms of wheat production annually.
He also runs Milligan Farms L.L.C., which farms 4,000 acres of wheat, soybeans, dry beans, and corn near Cass City. The farm has been in the family since 1910.
MWP mostly funds and directs research centered on quality and yield issues in winter wheat (65 percent of its budget goes toward research). Research has included everything from breeding and genetics to disease and nutrient management, high management, crop rotation and weed control.
The first step in the Michigan Wheat Program’s wheat research strategy began in 2012 when the first research projects were funded. Every year since, the program has funded more projects and addressed more wheat issues. So far, the MWP has invested more than $1.5 million in nearly 75 wheat research projects, most at MSU.
The second objective of the wheat research program was to secure a high-quality research team at MSU, through new positions and dedicating existing staff positions to wheat needs.
MSU Extension wheat educator Martin Nagelkirk and MSU wheat specialist Dennis Pennington, hired last summer, oversee field trials and communicate results to wheat farmers.
With a top-notch team in place, Milligan said it became obvious that there was also a need for more land to conduct additional long-term wheat research in strategic locations.
In June, MWP announced that it would provide $700,000 so that MSU could purchase 150 acres adjacent to the current bean and sugar beet research farm (Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center) in Richville (near Frankenmuth), which will allow dedicated crop rotation trials with other key agricultural crops, Milligan added.
“If we want wheat to be included in crop rotation research in locations that are near major wheat production areas, we need to ensure that MSU has both the land and a commitment to serve the wheat industry going forward,” said MWP executive director Jody Pollok-Newsom, in a release at the time of the announcement. “The board has worked out an agreement that achieves this.”
Doug Buhler, director of MSUAgBioResearch, said he was pleased to see the support of the Michigan wheat producers in expanding the focus of research at SVREC.
“We work in close partnership with the commodity organizations throughout Michigan to ensure we’re meeting their research and outreach needs,” Buhler said. “This generous contribution exemplifies the trust and reliance that producers here in the state have come to expect from MSU.”
Milligan said it’s one of the more tangible ways the MWP has had successes since 2011.
Another big one?
Helping farmers gain access to adequate insurance coverage for crop loss due to “low falling numbers,” a problem caused by an enzyme that forms in a kernel of wheat and eats away at the starch. It can be caused by rains late in the harvest season or wide swings in temperature during key times of growth.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort to have that changed for white wheat,” Milligan said, adding that MWP continues working for similar coverage for red wheat (in Michigan, about 60 percent of wheat is red, 40 percent white).
“It probably wouldn’t have happened without the MWP,” Milligan said. “We’re not trying to blow our own horn, but somebody had to do it.”
MWP also is involved in marketing and education.
Specifically, Milligan said, with regard to the potential use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in wheat, and the so-called “gluten-free movement” that he said has been successful in convincing many that they need to live without wheat — even if they don’t.
“There are people that have celiac disease, we know that, but now it seems like everybody thinks they have it,” he said. “The Dr. Oz’s of the world are out there saying ‘God, if you don’t feel good and you’re putting on weight, it’s the gluten in the wheat.’
“How long have people been eating wheat? Almost as long as people have been alive.”
The organization works to educate people about what it believes to be accurate in different ways, such as through “Breakfast on the Farm”-type events, and developing informational pieces such as “Facts About Gluten,” developed in conjunction with MSU Extension.
MWP does a lot more in the realm of education, too.
It recently upgraded its website at www.miwheat.org to make it easy for anyone seeking information to easily find it online.
MWP even launched a YouTube channel that consists of nearly 20 videos. It also has a Facebook page.
And the organization aims to never miss an opportunity to educate about the wheat industry in Michigan.
“A key reason that Michigan wheat is well-positioned in the marketplace is because our soft winter wheat (red and white) has a distinctive profile and is preferred in recipes used by many manufacturers of cereal, cakes, cookies, and crackers,” according to a statement in its 2014-15 annual reporter. “Wheat grown elsewhere in the U.S. does not have these same preferred qualities.”
Milligan said his involvement — and that of others within MWP — isn’t limited to state-level promotion of the wheat industry.
He said that’s exemplified by work done with organizations similar to MWP in other states, and through his own involvement with National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) — an industry group that works to give wheat a voice in Washington D.C.
“Whether it’s for research dollars, whether it’s for exports,” Milligan said. “They have a real interest in exports because over half the wheat grown in the United States is for exports.”
Milligan pointed out that Michigan does have an above average number of so-called “end users” such as Kellogg’s and General Mills.
However, he added that if demand outside of the U.S. for wheat exports is increased, it will be reflected in wheat prices across the board.
“A rising tide floats all boats,” he said. “The exports are good for everybody in the business.”
For the next three years, Milligan said he plans to continue chairing the MWP board in a way that will continue to foster growth of the wheat industry.
He said he expects the biggest battle will be regarding the use of GMOs in wheat.
“We want to just keep going,” he said. “Maybe it’s easier to sit at home and drive a tractor. But we’ve got to have a voice.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org