Since founding Biggby Coffee in 1995 and building the Michigan-based business into the fastest-growing coffee chain in the U.S., Bob Fish has taken pride in its hands-on, next-to-you interaction with customers in store lobbies and drive-thru lanes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged, but not broken that spirit.
“Now, it’s more than twice arms-length to get the same job done,” Fish said while recording a podcast with MLive’s Eric Hultgren. “Biggby has always been a place where you go to get a smile and a cup of coffee, and we can’t ignore the fact that people are getting a dopamine rush because they’re seeing people…who are smiling, engaging, happy and excited to see you.
“Our values remain grounded in supporting people and building a life they love. We have to keep a positive attitude regardless of what we’re doing (while dealing with the virus).”
Michigan’s stay-at-home order transitioned Biggby’s business to carry-out and drive-thru service only effective March 17. Some of the 200-plus stores temporarily closed while others changed hours. All the owner-operators are eagerly awaiting the ability to re-engage with comfortable spaces in coffeehouses and breaking out the patio furniture and allowing people to talk, celebrate friendships and share a cup of coffee.
The priority is to keep the health and safety of staff and customers at the forefront, said Fish, Biggby’s co-CEO.
“Biggby has been at the leading edge of doing everything proper from a safety and sanitation standpoint,” Fish said, noting that new protocols with everything from masks to social distancing in stores have been instituted and followed.
Despite the differences in daily routines, Biggby has bucked national trends by increasing its overall sales and hiring staff rather than reducing its workforce. The coffeeshops have been a bellwether of the economy and Michigan’s overall mood.
“I think Biggby is just a note of optimism in what returning to normal looks like,” Fish said. “The fact that sales are back to normal already and we’re in a hiring mode is pretty cool.”
The other shift that Biggby leaders have observed during the pandemic is the care and concern customers have had for staff during uncertain times. People are being “hyper-generous” with tipping baristas and expressing appreciation, Fish said.
Fish also shared how scheduling daily walks has helped keep him remain centered under different life circumstances. He recommends scheduling time for yourself outdoors to all.
“Something really special happens out there,” he said. “You can start sorting through things in your head and getting aligned. Listen to nature, the wind, the trees, the animals, the birds, all that has a really positive impact on your mind and mindspace.”
In some ways, skilled nursing facilities look a lot different during the COVID-19 pandemic. To mitigate spread of the coronavirus, no visitors are allowed, dining halls are empty and certain social activities have been cancelled.
But in other ways, things look just the same. After all, residents and their caretakers and non-clinical staff in housekeeping, maintenance and other areas are still making each other smile each day.
Meow! Mask-wearing staff members dress up as cats to entertain residents at MediLodge of Livingston in Howell.
Sure, this pandemic is a trying time for everyone, and for families of loved ones in nursing care it can even be heartbreaking. Yet, for every story of a resident being sick without family by their side, there are countless more examples of residents smiling – despite the current reality of visitor restrictions and social distancing guidelines.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference in a person’s day, from employees dressing up in goofy costumes to residents making paper airplanes to special, door-to-door deliveries of ice cream floats.
“Due to COVID 19, our residents have had to stay in their rooms, so we have brought the fun to them!” said Laura Decker, activities director at MediLodge of St. Clair.
Residents at MediLodge at the Shore in Grand Haven made paper airplanes and then had a competition to see whose planes could fly through the holes in a plywood map of the USA.
In addition to a wheelchair decorating contest, residents at MediLodge of Clare have fished for rubber duckies and tried their aim in a hallway Nerf gun shooting contest.
In addition to a wheelchair decorating contest, residents at MediLodge of Clare have fished for rubber duckies and tried their aim in a hallway Nerf gun shooting contest.
Residents at MediLodge of Lansing played hallway bingo. They also were treated with door-to-door delivery of ice cream sundaes!
MediLodge staff members have been dressing up – and hamming it up for the camera – over the past several weeks. At MediLodge of Gaylord, Director of Admissions Della Rollins (left) and housekeeper Kathy Holton show off their royal crowns.
Staff members have been dressing up – and hamming it up for the camera – over the past several weeks, with some even covering their face masks with bunny faces. What’s up, doc? Er, nurse!
MediLodge staff members have been dressing up – and hamming it up for the camera – over the past several weeks. In addition to nursing staff, non-clinical employees including housekeepers, maintenance workers, admissions directors and resident advocates have been stepping up each day to make sure the facilities are safe, clean and operating with proper COVID-19 precautions while still having fun
MediLodge staff members have been dressing up – and hamming it up for the camera – over the past several weeks. Staff members practiced some groovy social distancing during a 1960s-themed dress up day at MediLodge of Cass City.
Staff members have been dressing up – and hamming it up for the camera – over the past several weeks.
Staff members have been dressing up – and hamming it up for the camera – over the past several weeks.
During a Mother’s Day Tea at MediLodge at the Shore in Grand Haven, each resident mom was treated to a plate of sugar cookies topped with cream cheese icing and fresh fruit, along with strawberry lemonade and a homemade purse filled with tissues, hard candy and chocolates.
Residents were treated to ice cream floats in all flavors at MediLodge of Wyoming, where staff also went room to room tie-dying shirts in colors requested by each resident. ‘You can’t imagine how happy floats make people!’ said Charise Whaley, director of admissions.
Team members at MediLodge of Lansing enjoyed a pinata game while having fun with residents and each other.
An inspirational message from the staff at MediLodge of Lansing.
Staff members got fancy while decorating a cart at MediLodge of Okemos.
Madison Walat’s training didn’t involve FaceTime. Yet, there she was at the end of a 12-hour shift in the COVID unit at MediLodge of Alpena, holding an iPad so family members of a resident dying with the coronavirus could say their last goodbyes.
“It really tore me up,” said Walat, a licensed practical nurse. “That was so hard to sit there and hold the iPad while each family member told stories and cried.
“Automatically, not even thinking, I was holding the resident’s hand the whole time. He could hear the family’s voice and I was just holding his hand so he wouldn’t feel alone.”
From donning full-body personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, gowns and face shields to helping residents and family members communicate at a time when health care facilities are closed to visitors, a lot has changed in the world of nursing as Michigan continues to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then again, some things stay the same. Nurses are always “essential” workers. And through this trying time of change and uncertainty they remain committed to being what they have always been – caring patient advocates.
“There’s been so many analogies for the health care professionals such as ‘heroes’ or ‘superheroes,’ and I use the analogy of being ‘angels’ because they’re having to be guardians,” said Trissie Farr, chief clinical officer for MediLodge, a network of 50 skilled nursing facilities across Michigan. “They’re having to be caregivers. They’re having to be messengers. They’re having to disinfect iPads and facilitate the opportunity for a family member to be able to use FaceTime or Skype.
“When family can’t be there, it could be that the nurse is the last person that patient or resident ever sees before they leave this world. It’s hard on our staff having to deal with that responsibility, too.”
It’s not just hospital workers on the front lines of the pandemic. It’s also long-term care nurses – LPNs, registered nurses and certified nursing assistants who provide care for recovering COVID patients and also take precautions to prevent the virus from spreading to other residents.
Jamillah Lynn, for one, is thankful. Having battled COVID-19 for more than two weeks including an induced coma and 10 days of intubation to help her breathe, Lynn responded enthusiastically when doctors finally asked her if she was ready to leave the hospital: “Yes!” she almost screamed. After all, Lynn figured she was headed home. Instead, she was transported to a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation.
In the COVID unit at MediLodge of Frankenmuth, Lynn regained her strength thanks to the caring, compassionate staff. Her nurses were sweet as can be. Her therapists challenged her and treated her with kindness. She was served a delicious variety of food that was safe and easy to swallow. She was given activity books to pass the time.
It was the next best thing to being home.
“The TLC I received upon arrival managed to take the pain away,” Lynn said. “I don’t remember their names, but I most definitely remember their faces and kindness.”
In recognition of National Nurses Month, we’re putting names to just a few of those heroic faces that are helping Michigan through the COVID-19 pandemic:
Fredrick Massoll, administrator at MediLodge of Okemos
‘I don’t consider myself a “hero,” but I do believe that I have a purpose and I am where I am supposed to be,’ said Stacey Hodges, left, director of nursing in the COVID unit at MediLodge of Kalamazoo alongside CNA Stephanie Holton. ‘I know that we will all come out of this with a new appreciation for our residents, staff and families for making it through this together.’
‘We provide opportunities for our residents and families to talk and see one another through a window visit, phone calls and video chats with staff assistance, as needed,’ said Lori Burrone, an RN at MediLodge of Hillman. ‘I think it is so awesome, because at least our residents know they are thought of and loved.’
Alaunna McKeithen, non-certified nursing assistant at MediLodge of Okemos
Julie Spicer, long-term care nurse at MediLodge of Green View, in Alpena
Douglas Laurion is a nurse at MediLodge of Capital Area in Lansing who wakes up at 5 a.m. each day and typically works 12-hour shifts. ‘I enjoy staying at work longer than my obligated time to assure that the residents are getting extra attention and support,’ he said. ‘I love working with the long-term care population to soak up their wealth of knowledge and history.’
Lindsay Piejak, a nurse at MediLodge of Rochester
Tiffany Adams, a CNA at MediLodge of Okemos
Walat has only been licensed as a nurse since January, so the pandemic has been a baptism by fire for her. On one hand, she doesn’t know when things will ever go back to normal like they used to be. On the other hand, she’s learning firsthand how nurses have always been guardian angels, no matter the circumstances.
“Every single day I get to make a difference is somebody’s life,” Walat said. “A couple weeks ago I worked many overtime hours. I just didn’t want to leave because I wanted to know what was changing with my patients on my wing. I’m loving seeing them out and getting to walk again.”
National Nurses Month: Thank you to all the long-term care nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Together, the staff at MediLodge of Frankenmuth catered to my every need by creating a home away from home,’ said Jamillah Lynn, who recovered from the coronavirus in the skilled nursing facility’s COVID unit. ‘I was grateful to have been placed in good hands.’
Like many parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leanna Watson starts her day by making sure her children are prepared to complete their schoolwork from home. Only she can’t talk to them face to face.
Watson is a long-term care nurse, an “essential” job that carries no small risk these days in the part of Michigan hit hardest by the coronavirus. To protect her children, Watson sent them to live with their grandmother about an hour away.
“I work in a building where there’s been COVID and I myself have had COVID, so to keep my kids safe they haven’t been home,” said Watson, 39, director of nursing at MediLodge of Southfield, near Detroit. “Even on the holiday we weren’t together. We had to have virtual Easter with a virtual teatime.”
We’re all dealing with changes to our daily routines during the pandemic, adjusting our personal lives to the reality of stay-at-home orders and social distancing. In many cases we’re juggling home-schooling with work. We’re figuring out how to celebrate Mothers’ Day, family birthdays and graduations without endangering each other. We’re bombarded daily with reports of mounting COVID-19 cases and deaths, and we lie awake at night worrying about what the next day might bring.
Long-term care nurses are grappling with all of that, too, in some cases alone and separated from their families. And if that isn’t enough, when they go to work they put themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, often for long hours every day for weeks at a time so our loved ones get the care they need.
Their sacrifice is worth noting during National Skilled Nursing Care Week. It’s also worth celebrating the all-hands-on-deck spirit of skilled nursing staff and the support of their families, the smiles of residents and the gratitude of their families.
“But together we have resilience in the face of these challenging times.”
Before getting to work
Each morning Sara Tracey feels the same sense of dread that many of us have as she checks her phone and sees the bad news about the pandemic and its effect on people across Michigan and beyond. Listening to the radio on her drive into work, it’s more of the same negativity.
‘I’m constantly doing my usual rounds, only now I’m looking at different things,’ said JonAnn Danielson, director of nursing at MediLodge of Shoreline in Sterling Heights, seen here with resident Barbara D’Anna. ‘I’m looking to make sure that any resident in the hall has their mask on properly, that residents and staff are staying six feet apart from each other, and many other COVID-related rules.’
When Tracey gets to work she goes through a new, painstaking routine that involves having her temperature taken and undergoing a COVID-19 screening – Any new onset sore throat? Any new onset cough or shortness of breath? She washes her hands and dons personal protective equipment including
N95 face masks, face shields, gloves and gowns that she’ll wear throughout the day, making her hot and often uncomfortable.
Then, Tracey walks into MediLodge of Alpena.
“As soon as I open the doors, the dread begins to fade,” she said. “I look at the patients and speak with them to see how they are doing that day. Not only do they carry a smile on their face, a little laughter and conversation begins.
“I speak with the staff down the unit, thank each and every one of them for the hard work and dedication they bring to work on a daily basis. Calls are placed to patients’ families. Updates are given. Now all the negativity is gone. The support by our families while talking with them on the phone is all me and my team needs.”
In addition to going about their usual duties of passing meds, changing dressings and caring for the physical needs of residents, long-term care nurses are busy preventing the spread of COVID-19 while still maintaining a homelike environment.
Because visitors are not allowed in this new normal, residents are unable to hug or kiss their family members and can only talk to them on the phone or through a window. So, nurses regularly facilitate video chats and window visits.
‘My patients always amaze me the way they keep their sense of humor,’ said Brian Grappin, a nurse in the COVID unit at MediLodge of GTC in Traverse City. ‘They are determined to do their best and I’m glad I can help them.’
Gowned-up in PPE and wearing masks and face shields, nurses now smile with their eyes.
“During these tough times of change and adjustment, one thing has remained strong – the support we provide one another, our residents and their loved ones,” said Jessica Ludlow, an RN at MediLodge of Alpena. “Comforting residents, engaging in meaningful conversations and communicating with their loved ones is more imperative now than it’s ever been.”
In some skilled nursing facilities there are designated COVID units where nurses work exclusively with residents who have the coronavirus. Nurses are checking residents’ vital signs much more frequently, taking full sets as often as every four hours to gauge oxygen levels, blood pressure and more. Plus, they’re busy keeping up with the latest government guidelines, which in some cases can be conflicting.
Each day is an emotional roller coaster, as some residents recover from the virus and others die with it. It can feel like losing a family member when a resident dies, and it’s exhilarating when a resident returns to health.
“Working the COVID unit has been physically and emotionally exhausting,” said Stacey Hodges, an RN
Each resident needs extra attention these days because of the isolation, says Jenna Wieschowski, RN. ‘I do my best to keep morale up and spirits high for the residents due to the lack of family and even resident-to-resident contact now because of the social distancing rules.’
at MediLodge of Kalamazoo. “The residents are sick. Many times I have been forced to use my past experience in critical care to help them breathe effectively, get their temperature down or bring a blood pressure back up where it belongs.”
“The fear they show during these times is heart breaking, but the smiles they give when they start to heal and feel better is what keeps me going. I think it’s what keeps all of us going.”
Going home after work
After often working well beyond their scheduled shift, the precautions involved in leaving work are just as meticulous as those taken when arriving. Hands cracked and dry from so much washing during the day, many nurses change out of their scrubs before leaving work. Then in a makeshift changing area in their garage or even a camper in the driveway, they take those clothes off before entering their home and march straight into the shower to wash the day’s germs away.
For long-term care nurses who are parents, bypassing children on the way to the shower is a common experience.
“My daughter struggles because she isn’t able to give me a hug like she used to do once I got home,” said Ashley Graves, an LPN in the COVID unit at MediLodge of Cass City.
After getting cleaned up, then it’s time to go over their children’s schoolwork, try to get some quality time with the family and make dinner. Fortunately, many nurses have supportive spouses to help run the household.
In some ways, many long-term care nurses feel like they are constantly living in survival mode as they go from dealing with family anxieties and concerns to the life-and-death challenges of the workday and back again. ‘We never get a chance to punch out,’ said Rebekah Crothers, an infection control nurse at MediLodge of St. Clair.
“Before I know it, it’s time for baths, bed and prayers that our household remains healthy and safe,” said Jenna Wieschowski, an RN at MediLodge of Green View, in Alpena. “And then repeat it all again the next day. Just normal routine for COVID life.”
In some cases, long-term care nurses haven’t gone home in weeks. They’ve been separated from their loved ones as they isolate themselves during the pandemic.
“I get off the phone with my daughter sometimes and I just want to be there with her, but I don’t want her to get sick,” said Judy Goldberg, an LPN at MediLodge of Cass City. “It’s tough. You hang up the phone and you kinda lose it.”
“But I wouldn’t change what I’m doing. This is what we signed up for as nurses, to help people who can’t help themselves.”
Hope for tomorrow
At the end of March, Leanna Watson was diagnosed with COVID after contracting the virus most likely through her work as a nurse. She lost her taste and smell, suffered bad muscle aches, abdominal pain, diarrhea and shortness of breath with activity.
Watson was off work for two weeks while successfully recovering from the virus at home. When she felt better and returned to her nursing job at MediLodge of Southfield, her family was scared. Her kids didn’t want her to go back to work. But “I signed up to be a nurse,” she said. “I don’t bail when times are hard.”
But even though nurses put on a brave face, that doesn’t mean they’re tough all the time. Watson’s heart melted recently when a long-time resident whom she knew well contracted COVID-19. Prior to his diagnosis, not a day went by that the two of them didn’t talk. Then his symptoms worsened, and he passed away.
“That really hit home for me,” Watson said. “Sometimes I go home and cry.”
Leanna Watson with MediLodge of Southfield resident Monica Foster
But for every sad day, there are good days when nobody is sick or when residents recover. And that
brings hope for tomorrow.
“Those are my happiest days, when it’s feeling like a normal day again,” she said.
Just like any of us who go shopping, William Crisan wasn’t planning to pick up a case of COVID-19 when he walked into a dollar store in Warren, Mich. last month. And just like any of us receiving health care, Julie Baer wasn’t expecting to contract the coronavirus when she went to the hospital with a heart attack.
Yet, both recently were added to the mounting number of COVID-19 cases across Michigan, like so many thousands of our fellow co-workers, neighbors, friends and family members.
Fortunately, both Crisan and Baer are also now are part of a lesser-known statistic: Michigan’s number of COVID-19 recoveries.
“I remember asking a couple of my nurses just don’t let me die,” said Baer, 52, who was discharged this week from MediLodge of Frankenmuth, where she spent the past couple weeks recovering in the skilled nursing facility’s COVID unit.
More than 100 people have recovered from COVID-19 at MediLodge skilled nursing facilities across Michigan. ‘As we see the virus enter communities we adapt,’ said Nicole Kaufman, a MediLodge vice president. ‘Our leadership has put into our veins the fact that we care for people who are sick, and that includes COVID. It’s what we do.’
As we mourn each day’s new tally of confirmed cases and coronavirus deaths, it’s also time to celebrate Michigan’s COVID-19 recovery success stories. There now are nearly four times as many COVID-19 recoveries in the state as there are COVID-19 deaths, with about 16,000 of our fellow Michiganders alive and well more than 30 days after being diagnosed with the virus.
Many other patients in Michigan are currently on track for recovery in skilled nursing facilities across the state. They too will soon join the growing number of recoveries thanks to the care and dedication of nurses at MediLodge of Frankenmuth and many, many other places.
Each recovery means another co-worker, neighbor or friend has returned to their home healthy. Each success story means another family reunited. Together, they mean stronger communities across Michigan now and into the future, and each one is worthy of celebration.
“My most memorable moment was when I walked out the door at discharge,” said Kurt Heide, a COVID-19 patient who recovered for 10 days at MediLodge of GTC in Traverse City. “My grandson was there to get me, and all of the staff were outside and were clapping for me as I left. That was really nice.”
Once COVID-19 patients are no longer in critical danger from the virus, they often transfer to skilled nursing facilities such as MediLodge for continuing care. There, patients receive individualized nursing care around the clock as well as therapy services as they safely quarantine. After two negative COVID tests, the patients then are discharged and added to Michigan’s list of coronavirus recoveries.
“I was understanding when I was told he needed to go to a facility for therapy. I knew he was too weak to come home and I would not be able to care for him at home yet,” said Sheila Stokes, whose husband, John, contracted the virus while shopping and recovered for 15 days at MediLodge of St. Clair. “The virus took a lot out of him.
“It is memorable to me that the staff were able to take time each day to help John FaceTime me on an iPad. It was difficult not being able to see him for that length of time. But it was much easier knowing at least I would get to see him that way.”
Stokes said she “wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” but added that “there is a light at the end of it all.” She encourages patients to “get the care you need” so you can recover and go back home.
Betty Walker can relate. She rehabbed from COVID-19 at MediLodge of Grand Blanc, near Flint.
“Something as simple as getting out of bed had suddenly become a chore and made me dizzy, weak and short of breath,” Walker said. “Some days I really did not want to get up, but the ‘drill sergeants’ at MediLodge made me get up and get better anyway.
“Exercising and building up my strength was critical to my recovery, along with the Motown music we danced to in the hallway. Today, I feel great and ready to return home thanks to the amazing staff of MediLodge of Grand Blanc.”
Here are a few more celebratory scenes of COVID-19 recovery, each one marking a success in Michigan’s ongoing battle with the virus:
‘Have faith in what they are doing for you,’ said William Crisan, 74, who went home after a 16-day stay at MediLodge of Shoreline in Sterling Heights. ‘The staff at MediLodge was excellent. My therapists were very nice and helped me out without making me feel pushed. Staff was very encouraging throughout, telling me how I’m getting stronger. Everyone that took care of me was the absolute best. If I could come back to vacation here I would.’
Frederick Orth, 90, doesn’t know how he came into contact with COVID-19 and he can’t recall the names of staff who treated him during a 16-day stay at MediLodge of Sterling Heights. But he does remember how the staff ‘always remembered my oatmeal and coffee in the morning! I needed the care and they took good care of me,’ he said. ‘I liked my room partner, too.’ A highlight of Orth’s stay was that he was able to see his family out the window when they came to visit.
‘If you want to cheer for someone, cheer for these heroes,’ said Mary M, who was discharged from MediLodge of St. Clair after recovering from COVID-19. ‘Cheer for the heroes that helped me recover. The staff that cared for me were amazing. I am grateful for them all.’
Invariably, recovered COVID-19 patients are happy to get home to their family and friends because the coronavirus is such an isolating diagnosis. In at least one case, however, the patient can’t wait to get back into a skilled nursing facility.
Julie Baer suffered a heart attack last month and went to a hospital in Saginaw for surgery to put a stent in one of her arteries. Then, after returning home, Baer got a call telling her some uncomfortable news: one of her hospital caregivers had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Baer, too, then tested positive for the coronavirus and was added to Michigan’s list of confirmed COVID-19 cases. She also began experiencing coronavirus symptoms including a cough, upset stomach and loss of taste. Most concerning, Baer was having trouble breathing.
Fortunately, Baer’s breathing stabilized at another hospital. She then went into quarantine in the COVID unit at MediLodge of Frankenmuth where her vital signs were monitored constantly. She stayed for two weeks, then was discharged Monday, May 4, and added to Michigan’s list of COVID-19 recoveries.
A Certified Nursing Assistant at MediLodge of Cass City, Baer said it was an interesting experience to be in the bed as a patient rather than at the bedside as a nurse. Now that she has recovered from COVID-19, Baer hopes to be back at work in a week to help other coronavirus patients recover at MediLodge where there’s support from a community of long term care professionals so essential and willing to care for the community they serve.
Having already triumphed through her own COVID-19 recovery, Baer is eager to rejoin her MediLodge nursing colleagues in caring about people while they care for them and in being part of more success stories for Michigan.
“There’s fear, you’re not sure what to expect and then you feel like you’re just cut off from the rest of the world,” said Baer, 52. “I want to get back and work with corona-positive people because I’ve been there. I know what they’re going through.”
“It doesn’t matter how big we get, we still will stop and serve our employees, and thank them.”
Eric finds out if a company can be both focused on its employees and still helping its customers reach impressive stats doing good for the environment. Watch the video for this spotlight on M.W. Watermark.
It wasn’t long ago that Scotty and Suzi Owens were typical gardeners who enjoyed sharing some of their harvest with friends. The hot sauce they made with homegrown peppers got rave reviews, and people said they should go into business selling it.
When Scotty got laid off from his work in tool and die during Michigan’s economic downturn, he and his wife did just that.
Fast forward to today and bottles of Scotty O’Hotty hot sauce and salsa are in grocery stores around the country. The couple’s business is operating with seven employees out of a 17,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, and in 2019 they’re on track to go nationwide in Kroger stores and begin exporting their award-winning products to China.
So, how in the world did that happen?
The Michigan State University Product Center recognized Suzi and Scotty Owens as 2018 entrepreneurs of the year.
“We had the dreamiest stars in our eyes, but I was almost at a brick wall at what to do,” Scotty Owens said. “MSU really steered us in the right direction.”The Owens came across the Michigan State University Product Center in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. There they received guidance on the rules and regulations involved in making a food product, took classes on bottling, learned about labeling and in 2012 got licensed to work out of a commercial kitchen.
A year later Scotty O’Hotty was on the shelves in small grocery stores that the Owens connected with through MSU’s Making It In Michigan food show, and the business has been growing ever since. Earlier this year the MSU Product Center named Scotty and Suzi Owens their entrepreneurs of the year.
Scotty O’Hotty is just one of many success stories at the MSU Product Center, which helps start or expand businesses in the agriculture and food sector. Just last year, the Product Center helped launch 87 new Michigan businesses that invested $35 million into the economy and created 350 new jobs.
But the MSU Product Center is just one way that MSU has been helping to grow the state’s food and agriculture system over the past 160 years. As the country’s pioneer land-grant institution, the then-Michigan Agricultural College has been a leader in practical, science-based education from the start, and even though the name has changed agriculture remains an important area of research, with a big impact on the Michigan economy.
“The idea of us being here to help support and build and grow the agriculture and natural resources industries of the state goes back to the very beginning,” said Douglas Buhler, director of MSU AgBioResearch and assistant vice president of research and graduate studies.
Back in the mid-1800s, MSU was established by federal law as an agricultural school — the first to teach scientific agriculture. It became the prototype for the nation’s land-grant institutions, which were created to promote both the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes. Though MSU now carries out that mission across a wide range of disciplines, the original focus was agriculture.
Before the start of the 20th century, MSU had birthed groundbreaking agricultural advances including the development of hybrid corn to increase yields and the discovery that a swath of Michigan is fertile ground for sugar beets. Pioneering work has continued on everything from the process used in the homogenization of milk to how Michigan farmers can grow hops for the state’s booming craft beer sector.
Nearly 5,000 students are studying in dozens of degree and certificate programs through Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
And today MSU is a global leader in agricultural education, using scientific research to address real-world problems and help agri-food businesses implement solutions.
MSU has played no small role in Michigan’s massive food and agriculture economy, which fuels more than 800,000 jobs and makes an annual impact of more than $100 billion, according to a 2018 study. Here are just a few glimpses of the breadth of MSU’s engagement in the industry:
Preparing tomorrow’s agricultural leaders
Today, MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources includes nearly 5,000 students studying in dozens of degree and certificate programs in forestry, animal science, crop and soil science, horticulture and many others.
“Through our educational programs we train the next generation of agri-food leaders both in the public sector and in the private sector,” said Bill Knudson, a professor in MSU’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics. “We have a lot of two-year programs as well, geared primarily toward people who will be working on the farm both in the crop area and the livestock area.
Michigan State University student Loren G. King is studying how technology such as drones and autonomous vehicles can make farm operation more efficient.
“Not only do we train our workers, but we also train our regulators. We’d have a much less safe food supply (without MSU’s leadership).”
Among those thousands of students is Loren G. King, who comes from a family farm in southwest Michigan and is learning about agriculture technology. Looking at global population estimates during his lifetime, the 20-year-old knows that the food and agriculture system will have to produce more and, to remain sustainable, do so while using fewer inputs such as fertilizer.
So, he’s studying how farms could deploy autonomous vehicles and drones to become more efficient. He envisions a completely cloud-based farm where managers can use mobile devices to gauge moisture and nutrient levels to see how crops are doing.
“It’s about expanding the efficiency of the farmer right now,” King said. “You’ve got to feed more people while using less.”
Bringing innovation into everyday life
Embedded in the DNA of a land-grant institution like MSU is the drive to use cutting-edge scientific tools to address problems and forge new opportunities. Because of that, food and agriculture study at MSU is definitely “not a science for science’s sake operation,” Buhler said.
A benefit of MSU’s research is that Michigan has developed the country’s second most-diverse agricultural economy. In addition to staples such as corn, milk and eggs, the state’s agriculture sector is full of smaller, specialty crops from asparagus to wine grapes.
Some of Michigan’s fruit varieties, for example, have been developed by MSU on nearly 20,000 acres that are used for agriculture and natural resources research and education throughout the state.
Michigan State University professor Rufus Isaacs is a leading researcher on the invasive spotted wing drosophila insect.But that diversity also breeds new challenges. Fortunately, MSU also is at the forefront of combating new crop diseases and pests. For example, professor Rufus Isaacs this month made a list of the world’s most Highly Cited Researchers for his work on the spotted wing drosophila, an invasive insect that damages fruit crops. Isaacs is just one of many MSU food and agriculture experts on the list.
“The large companies that are there to support major corn, soybean and dairy are not available for a lot of these smaller, more specialized industries,” Buhler said. “If we’re not there to help them with their latest insect, there aren’t a lot of options. If we weren’t here I don’t know who would fill that gap in all these specialty areas.
“Not many years ago there were almost no hops grown in Michigan. Had MSU not been here to help people learn how to manage hops and control diseases I don’t think it would have happened.”
Aside from immediate threats, MSU also is researching long-term challenges from food waste to world hunger through efforts including the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation and the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy. Climate change poses another problem, and MSU’s Plant Resilience Institute is working to improve the ability of crops to handle weather extremes.
“Minor changes in weather could have a real impact on us,” Buhler said.
Helping communities grow
Not only does MSU do research to support Michigan’s food and agriculture system and educate the next generation of industry leaders, the university also takes what it learns and shares it with the broader public. That work takes many forms including the new “Food @ MSU. Our Table” program, which helps people make better-informed choices about food.
In an era where the population is both growing and becoming more urbanized, it’s easy for people to be even more disconnected from the sources of the food they eat. That’s why MSU also is active in urban agriculture around the state, including the new MSU Detroit Partnership for Food, Learning and Innovation.
Michigan State University’s first urban food research center is being established in northwest Detroit through the new MSU Detroit Partnership for Food, Learning and Innovation.
MSU is establishing its first urban food research center on a 2.5-acre former school site in a northwest Detroit neighborhood. The findings on everything from soil remediation to fertilizer and pesticide use will inform urban growers around Michigan and beyond.
“When you’re growing food in an urban setting it’s very different than in an open space,” said Dave Ivan, MSU Extension director of community, food and environmental programming. “This new center really will provide an opportunity for us to plant a flag in an area, working with a lot of the existing leaders in the Detroit urban ag movement in terms of how we can help you address the challenges you’re facing.“
We have a lot of credibility in communities, so people trust the information that we provide. They know that we’re scientific in terms of guiding our recommendations or framing an issue.”
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