I manage a 160 acres Certified Organic farm, raising a variety of crops which mix changes each year. I normally grow food grade soybeans and spelt, corn, oats, hay and winter wheat. I have also grown hard red spring wheat and flax. I raise a few head of beef cattle and some broiler chickens and keep a small flock for organic eggs that I supply to the local health food store and some neighbors. I had been working with Don Cinzori of Ceresco MI to grow and market certified organic green beans and sweet corn of which I grow a couple acres each year. Discussions with Don, Sue Houghton and others led to the concept of a grant for this project. I have been with the Organic Growers of Michigan since 1994 and am also Certified Organic with the Organic Crop Improvement Association since 1998. By definition, all our farming practices are inherently sustainable.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The objective of the grant was to provide a means to increase farm incomes and employment in our rural area by forming a marketing cooperative of small certified organic farms. We intended to develop a network of suppliers and coordinate farming practices to provide products to sell directly to consumers at local farm markets. In this manner we could bypass wholesalers and capture the added value directly to the producers by shipping and marketing our own products. We would provide added employment by hiring a local truck driver and truck for moving and collecting products for sale and a worker to stay with the truck at the market to sell the products.
Several organizational meetings were held both separately and in conjunction with the Southwest Chapter of the Organic Growers of Michigan. Professional input was sought including from USDA Rural Development with Jason Church, Joel Welty from Michigan Alliance of Cooperatives and Jim LeCreux at Michigan State University. We also sought an alliance with the Michigan Farm Bureau through Randy Harmson and Bob Boehme who obtained a separate grant in our name for market research and farm inventory.
The planning stage was difficult. It is hard to find time to get a group of farmers together. Many individual phone calls were required to coordinate schedules. We had several productive meetings with good attendance that were advertised in the local papers. The Michigan Farm Bureau sponsored a study for us which included farm questionnaires, individual farmer interviews an a farm inventory and showed that we were too small to have much influence on any significant market scale and that the logistics of organizing such a small group with such large distances between farms provided a serious stumbling block. It did also show that the growth of the organic market was in excess of 20% per year and was expected to continue at that pace for the foreseeable future. In light of this information we decided that a smaller geographic group mix was the only way to work this at all.
The weather did not cooperate at all in 2000 to give much in the way of crops which is one reason why we needed the extension of the grant time. The weather in Allegan County was even worse in 2001 setting many all time records for both rainfall and drought, severely limiting crop production and in fact causing many conventional producers in the area to exit the agricultural business altogether. The reorganization of a smaller group into a cooperative venture also required an extension of time.
The project devolved into a group of 3 producers. With much help and advice from Don Cinzori and Bill Paarlberg, we got involved with the Holland Farmers Market in Holland Michigan. This is a large market with more than 100 vendors and no Certified Organic representation. Bill Paarlberg of South Haven Michigan obtained an invitation and followed up with the organizers of the Market to obtain a space for us there. We had hired a refrigerated truck and driver with the grant money to take vegetables to the market, but after a few weeks decided that a rental truck was an unnecessary expense. The money was only going to keep Ryder truck rentals in business. One ordinary pickup truck was adequate to haul the meager amount of vegetables we were able to harvest out of the very wet conditions in 2001. Bob Katie of Martin Michigan provided the truck and the salesmanship to help establish our presence at the market along with Bill Paarlberg who met up with us at the market. We were quite late in the season to have much impact. No one had any ripe vegetables until very late in the season.
We soon learned that we did not have enough variety of products or quantity to satisfy demand and that many people did not know we were Certified Organic. We needed a large flashy sign to alert people to our presence. Farm literature and leaflets describing Certified Organic practices was in great demand and short supply. We were quite successful in letting people know there was a Certified Organic presence in Southwest Michigan and much excitement was generated for our return in 2002.
We learned much in the short time we were at the market before the end of the season. The most important thing is advertising. A large flashy sign is needed at the market so people can find the display and know of our presence. A good salesman with portable, legal for trade scales is a necessity. A large selection of fruits and vegetables and specialty decorative articles is essential for general success across a wide market segment. A well organized cash box is important too. The simple visual presentation of the display was also important.
The grant was extremely helpful. We learned through this project the logistics of organizing materials for delivery to the market and were able to generate a modest amount of work for several under employed rural people. We have learned how to schedule planting dates and varieties to optimize output throughout the season. Good telecommunications are a necessity as well as trust amongst the participants. Pre-packaging and pre-weighing and labeling are important considerations as well as bagging purchased articles. Nice bags, preferably with your logo or advertisement are helpful.
The advice for growing vegetables has come primarily form don Cinzori and Paul Wylie from Michigan State Extension service. Their input has been invaluable.
This project while seemingly simple was not in fact so. But, with the experience this grant has enabled us to obtain, we will be able to carry on and expand not only the current presence at the Holland Farmers Market, but also expand our production of vegetable varieties and hopefully bring more local farmers into this venture. It would have been a lot easier had we started on a less ambitious scale in the beginning and not spend so much time trying to organize an entire group of widely scattered farms into a formal, legally defined and registered cooperative, which was our initial attempt (and falling). The second biggest factor to discourage the project came from the weather. We timed our start up to coincide with the worst consecutive growing seasons in the recorded history of Allegan County and maybe even the whole state of Michigan. Most of the state was declared a federal disaster area due to either drought or flooding in 2001.
The economic impact of this project has been modest to date. The operations at the Holland Farmers Market were not profitable on their own, but the connection has been made and I thoroughly believe that with some perseverance and more importantly advertising, that the market will be a successful and profitable venture in the future. A lot of the unprofitability was also to be blamed on the weather and significant loss of crops and severe lateness of harvest. The most important impact of this project and grant has been connections between growers in Southwest Michigan. The contacts with expertise in various areas of production and marketing have been extremely helpful. This project has fostered much exchange of ideas and led to a level of cooperation previously missing with local organic growers.
We will host an on farm workshop to tell about our success or failure. We will write articles for local papers, the Organic Growers of Michigan newsletter and Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance newsletter. We will send press releases to Vegetable Growers Newspaper, the Farm Journal, and the Vegetable Growers Council in Michigan. Several of our members would be willing to put on a workshop at growers conferences. We will help organize a networking opportunity with several small cooperatives in Michigan that are working on marketing issues. The Michigan Alliance of Cooperatives, which has provided technical advice to a number of small farm coops, has agreed to host a conference of small farmers to exchange ideas, encourage entrepreneurial approaches to farm problems, and to connect this project with the Governor’s Rural Development Council.