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Michigan's ban on deer baiting costly even before hunting season begins

by Ben Beversluis | The Grand Rapids Press
Sunday September 14, 2008, 5:17 AM

NEWAYGO -- Along the roads of Newaygo County, boards painted "Corn" and "Carrots" still stand with other signs of the local economy: "Fresh Brown Eggs," "Rabbits for Sale" and "Firewood."

But there are not as many signs this year on the highways to deer camp, which typically are lined by now with bagged carrots and corn and truckloads of beets.

One deer found to have infectious chronic wasting disease in northern Kent County has changed all that.

The resulting ban on baiting deer -- to keep them from congregating -- is dealing a blow to a sector of the hunting market that attracts big bucks in more ways than one.

To a large degree, it is a hidden economy. The best guesstimate: A $30 million to $40 million market, saids Ken Nye, a commodities specialist for Michigan Farm Bureau.

A Newaygo sport shop owner said he knows people who spend $10,000 a year on bait.
Press Photo/Jon M. BrouwerDouble-duty packaging: Al Bennink stacks corn in camo-pattern bags at Groenink's Elevator and Hardware in Nunica.

Now, hundreds of acres of beets planted specifically for bait could waste away. Grain mills that sell tons of corn are left holding the bag. The same goes for distributors who buy, package and resell cull carrots from growers and processors.

They account for a small percentage of Michigan's $4.2 billion agricultural industry -- but it's real money to some.

"Add up these couple hundred growers that have been part of this and it means something to them," Nye said.

The farm-raised doe found with the disease this month is the first case in Michigan of the fatal neurological disorder that has spread from western states through Wisconsin in the past two decades.

An emergency plan adopted in 2002 to control the disease led to the baiting ban in the Lower Peninsula, though it is not yet known to have spread beyond the Algoma Township farm.

Another unknown is whether the disease or the baiting ban will cut the number of Michigan hunters. Some reports say hunting in Wisconsin declined 15 to 20 percent the first year it was found there.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife chief Russ Mason said numbers quickly rebounded there.

He acknowledged some people are hurt by the baiting ban, but called it "an opportunity to do something of benefit for the herd, something of benefit for the state."

Still, protests reverberate like rifle reports on opening day.

Legislators got an earful from hunters, growers and bait sellers last week, but the Natural Resources Commission held the line Thursday. "The economic tentacles go all over," Chairman Keith Charters said. "But we're charged with doing what is best for the resource."

Hurt along the highway

Loss of bait sales is the latest blow for Russ Thompson, who for 15 years has run Thompson's Roadside Farm Market on M-37 near Kent City. Gas prices and fewer migrant-worker customers took a toll the past two years. He has dropped from five employees to just one.

"The economy is already down and this happens, too," he said.

He'll get by, he said, but he worries about growers and distributors who rely on bait.

Mark Bartholomew runs Bart's Fruit Market in Houghton Lake and distributes carrots, sugar beets, cob corn, shell corn and apples to 250 stores as far away as the Upper Peninsula.

"Yesterday I told 17 guys, 'Go home, I'll call you. I don't know what the hell's gonna happen,'" he said.

And he sees a wider impact: "It's not just the bait. It's all the sales associated with it. The guys come up from down below to put feed out. They drive up, buy gas, go out to a bar."

Down on the farm

Tom Oomen faces another quandary: How to dispose of anywhere from 200 to 600 tons of cull carrots.

Deer bait has let growers and packagers sell small, misshapen or damaged carrots at up to 80 percent of market price.

The 550-acre Oomen Farms of Hart is one of the state's largest carrot growers. Of 13,000 or 14,000 tons expected this year, bait is a small slice -- but the revenue helps with farming's low margins.

The Farm Bureau's Nye said some growers have told him, "If I can't sell the culls, I can't make any money."

Beyond lost revenue, Oomen wonders what he will do with the culls. He shudders at the cost of landfilling, if, for instance, he's not allowed to dump them in the "back 40."

He also wonders about the wider impact: "There are people who built whole businesses around it."

Hardest hit will be farmers who specifically planted bait crops, said Norm Myers, MSU Extension Service director in Oceana County.

"This would have been a lot easier to deal with if the ban had come in February or March," he said.
Press Photo/Jon M. BrouwerCorn down: Elevator co-owner Jay Groenink said sales have fallen over 10 years.

Feed plots on the rise

Even so, Jay Groenink has sold about 20 tons of cleaned corn in 50 pound bags in just two weeks, including the first week of the ban. It comes in camo-colored bags Groenink designed to also serve as blind material. But non-hunters also bought bags simply to feed deer in their yards.

Groenink is one of five brothers who own and operate Groenink's Elevator and Hardware in Nunica.

He said corn sales have dropped from about 40,000 bags 10 years ago to about 20,000 a year. He blames the economy and the rising price of corn, as well as the fact more people are buying seed to plant feed plots, either rye or rape and sometimes beets and turnips.

DNR regulations allow feed plots, but placing any agricultural product for hunting or feeding deer is prohibited.

Groenink said he can see the point of the bait ban, but noted, "I don't know how they're going to stop it."

Outdoors shops feel pinch

In downtown Newaygo, the jumping-off spot for miles of rolling oak forest, Ron Parsley has been selling sports supplies for 28 years.

The bait ban won't stop hunters, he said. High gas prices hurt more.

"Guys will make time to hunt," said the owner of Parsley's Sport Shop. "They'll cut back, but they'll still hunt or fish."

As far as the baiting ban, a week into it he said almost all the hunters he talked to accepted the need.

"We don't want to lose the deer herd in Michigan," he said. And, he added with a chuckle, "I've heard some old-timers saying, 'Well, now the young guys will have to learn how to hunt.'"

He and his employees said they might sell more attracting scent, and folks might have more money for gear.

DNR officials say the ban is necessary because so little is known about the illness. They cite scientific models that show little effect in wild populations the first 25 years of infection, but as much as a 70 percent drop in years 25 to 50.

Meanwhile, MSU Extension, the Farm Bureau, the Agriculture Department and others are trying to find alternative markets, but the prospects are dim.

"It's not a good deal," Nye acknowledged. "But at the same time, this is one of those issues, to protect one part of Michigan agriculture, we have to mess it up for somebody else.

"That's very unfortunate."
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