Demonstrating a Quick-Start Process to Help Small Blueberry Farmers Begin Transition To Organic Practices

Project Overview

FNC14-945
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $22,439.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Frank Corrado
Moss Funnel Farms

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Fruits: berries (blueberries)
  • Animals: bees

Practices

  • Crop Production: biological inoculants, cover crops, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer
  • Farm Business Management: value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: hedges - grass, habitat enhancement
  • Pest Management: field monitoring/scouting, physical control
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, sustainability measures

    Summary:

    Farmer Rancher Grant Program

    1. PROJECT IDENTIFICATION

    • Name: Frank Corrado
    • Address: 1323 Seward St
    • City, State, Zip Code: Evanston, IL 560202

     

    • Phone: 269-206-2926
    • Website: www.joesblueberries.com
    • Project Title: DEMONSTRATING A QUICK-START PROCESS TO HELP SMALL BLUEBERRY FARMERS BEGIN TRANSITION TO ORGANIC PRACTICES
    • Project Number: FNC14-945
    • Project Duration: 24 months
    • Date of Report: December 16, 2015

     

    1. PROJECT BACKGROUND
    2. Briefly describe your operation (i.e. how many acres, what crops, types of cropping systems, type of livestock or dairy production, grazing systems, family operation, etc.)

     

    Moss Funnel Farms, the lead farm in this project, grows 4.5 A of jersey high bush blueberries on a 10 A farm in Bangor, MI. It is run by Joe Corrado and his father, Frank. The farm began as a

    5 A field of 60-year old bushes in 2008 and has been transformed into a u-pick farm market with large summer and winter CSAs, heavy participation in West Michigan and Chicago farmers markets. Moss Funnel also sells “Joe’s Premium Frozen Blueberries” in regional markets.

     

    1. Before receiving this grant, did you carry out any sustainable practices? If so, briefly describe what they were and how long you had been practicing them.

     

    From 2008-2010 the farm grew blueberries according to conventional practices. In 2010, Moss Funnel Farms was converted to organic practices and has remained so every since. In 2015 the farm’s organic transition plan, the first NRCS Technical Support Plan approved by the State of Michigan, was put into effect.

     III. PROJECT DESCRIPTION

    This is the core of the report. Consider what questions your neighbors or other farmers or ranchers would ask about what you did with this grant. Describe how you planned and conducted your research or education activities to meet your project goals and discuss the results.

     

    This demonstration project was planned to answer two pressing questions facing small Michigan blueberry growers:

     

    1. What does it take for a small blueberry grower transition to organic practices?

     

    Because of the length of time it takes for new plantings of blueberries to come into full production – upwards of 10 years – and because of the reduced amounts of fertilizers being added with transition to organic production, it seemed that converting established fields would make the most sense. And since almost half of the State’s 600 growers have nine acres or less in production it was felt small growers were an optimal target group for this demonstration. Because of our own size and experience level we felt working with this group made the most sense.

     

    1. Can going to organic practices help this grower financially?

     

    As Mark Longstroth, the prime adviser on this project who is the Paw Paw based fruit specialist for Michigan Extension said in his letter supporting the project, increased domestic and international production is crowding out small farms and unless can find a higher value market, they will be not be able to survive. Growing organic berries produces a high value product. Our own experience as growers of non-certified organic blueberries had done extremely well in the market and so we were confident that small growers could get more money for their berries in they transitioned to organic practices. More recently, the farm-to-table movement has opened up new selling opportunities on the farm and to the community directly via increasing numbers of farm markets, institutional sales, CSAs and other avenues.

     

     

    GOALS

    List your project goal(s) as identified in your grant application.

     

    • Identify a group of small acreage blueberry farmers willing to convert to organic practices
    • Establish an interim market for “naturally grown” blueberries that provides these farmers an incentive to pursue organic certification
    • Determine the pros and cons for farmers of such a transition

     PROCESS

    Describe the steps involved in conducting the project and the logic behind the choices you made. Please be specific so that other farmers and ranchers can consider what would apply to their operations and gain from your experience.

     

    Steps in the project

     

    1. Obtain baseline data. In order to establish a baseline, we needed to benchmark where our partner farms were when we started the project with the following information:

    • Spray records for previous year
    • Baseline soil test of fields

    1. Implement Transition Timetable – the benchmarks helped us create a spray plan that we felt would successfully move participating farms to organic practices in the course of one season.

     

    Transition plan used:

    1. Aggregate yields for value-added markets – The small farmers we worked with all had previously sold their products to processors who graded and paid them based on the quality of their conventionally grown outputs. In order to achieve the goals of this project and to incent these small farmers to change over to organic growing practices we felt it was necessary to create an interim market to sell “naturally grown” blueberries       that were neither conventionally grown nor certified organic. We had successfully been able to do this with our own fresh and frozen berries, so we took on the responsibility of buying the yield of participating farmers and marketing it.

     PEOPLE

    List farmers, ranchers, or business people who assisted with the project and explain how they were involved. List any personnel from a public agency, such as the Extension Service, Natural Resources Conservation Services or Soil and Water Conservation Districts who assisted with this project. List people from non-profit organizations who helped you.

     Moss Funnel Farms (Joseph Corrado) – Frank was Administrator and Joe was lead consultant.

     Dave Harn Farm (Dave Harn) - Dave’s 2A Blue Crop farm in Grand Junction, MI served evolved into model for this project. This veteran farmer’s transition story became the basis for our communications

     Kovach Farm (Jody Lemmer and Amy Clark) – Jody and Amy are granddaughters of a well-known Kalamazoo area farmer. They joined the project seeking to bring their family farm and its reputation into the 21st century.

     

    Alfred Speer Farm (Alfred Speer) – Alfred is an experienced grower from Breedsville, MI whose 4 A of Elliot’s represent the youngest field in the project. Alfred previously worked on the Breedsville farm once owned by Stanley Johnson, the father of modern blueberry production.

     

    Salgado Farm(Raphael/Minerva Salgado) – While Raphael and Minerva only participated during the first year of the project, their 2.5 A jersey field in Covert, MI continues to produce excellent naturally grown berries.

     Ring Farm (Sam Ring) – Sam’s small 1.5 A farm, like others in the study, had a difficult Year 2. His berries are among the oldest in the study.

     Munjoy Farm (Dave Munjoy) – Dave’s 3.0 A farm was a quick study in converting to organics. In Year 2 a family dispute kept the farm from moving forward.

     Mark Longstroth (SW Michigan Extension Fruit Specialist) – Mark is one of the most knowledgeable experts on blueberries in the U.S. He has been a consultant to this project from inception. He strong believes in growing berries organically and helping small farmers.

     Vicki Morrone , the Organic farming specialist at Center For Regional Food Systems at MSU, served as communications consultant to this project. She probably knows more about the organic scene in Michigan than any other person.

     Kyle Mead (MAEAP Technician, Van Buren Conservation District) – At Joe’s request, Kyle assisted our two major partner farms – Kovach and Dave Harn – in becoming environmentally certified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).

     Steve Bare (NRCS Paw Paw, MI staff) – Steve and his boss, Jeff Douglas, worked these past two years with Moss Funnel Farms and FSA so we could sign up for the Pollinator Program to build up our bee resources at Moss Funnel Farms. They also helped us in our application for a Technical Support Plan.

     Joe Lally (ManPlan, Inc.) Organic Consultant – Joe was funded by the NRCS in 2014 to develop a Technical Support Plan for organic transition for Moss Funnel Farms. Joe has produced very detailed plan – the first of its kind approved by the State of Michigan which has become a blueprint for us in becoming certified organic.

     RESULTS

    What results did you achieve and how were they measured? For production projects, include yields, field analysis, and related data. How do these compare with conventional systems used previously? For education projects, include outcomes achieved and how you measured them through surveys, attendance, or other methods. Were these results what you expected? If not, why not? What would you do differently next time?

     

    The results from our project were technically inconclusive due to a very bad 2015 blueberry crop, especially for jerseys, the main variety in our study. Two years of extremely cold winters - 2013/2014 and 2014/2015, combined with a very wet June resulted in significant cane damage and a heavy infestation of spotted wing drosophila. Fields with Elliots or Blue Crops appeared to be spared from the worst of the impacts.

     In our fields, as in those of our partners and others, the jersey crop was down over two-thirds from previous yields. While prices for Blue Crops and Elliots were strong in the fresh market, the lack of jerseys basically cut-off our ability to produce frozen berries for our value-added markets.

     Researchers are increasing their efforts to find an effective antidote for spotted wing drosophila. The most effective current remedy is netting, which is very expensive and not practical for most growers. As for cane damage, we have instituted a major trimming program at our farm and have recommended the same for our partners.

     At the December 15 Great Lakes Expo, blueberry scientists reported on a new threat to blueberries in the region for the coming season: Stem Gall Wasp.

     On the economic side, we believe we have successfully made the case to our farmer partners that naturally grown berries can bring them more money. However, we are not certain that these small farmers have the commitment to create their own value added markets - through CSA’s, farmers’ markets and the like. In the end, this may be the greatest obstacle to converting to organic practices.

     DISCUSSION

    What did you learn from this grant? How has this affected your farm or ranch operation? Did you overcome your identified barrier, and if so, how? What are the advantages and disadvantages of implementing a project such as yours? If asked for more information or a recommendation concerning what you examined in this project, what would you tell other farmers or ranchers?

     Lessons Learned :

    •  Converting to organic practices is not difficult – Good advice and suggestions are abundant for those wishing to convet: go to mechanical weeding, only use organic approved pesticides and fertilizers, build soil health.

     

    • Converting to organic practices requires additional capital investment – mechanical weeding devices can be costly, soil building is time consuming and expensive, a good sprayer is important, trimming and early harvesting are crucial. Costs for certification can run into the thousands of dollars.

     

    • The biggest barrier may be the willingness of the farmer to exploit his/her competitive advantage – there is added time and marketing expense when a farmer moves from selling his harvest to one source, versus having to go to farmers’ markets, set up CSAs, expend money on value added products.

     

    The need for agricultural policy that supports and provides incentives for farmers to convert to organics is lacking in States like Michigan, which makes it difficult. In our SARE project, we have had to take on significant debt to buy berries from our partners and produce a value-added product like our frozen blueberries, which while successful in wholesale and retail settings, have been a challenge for a small grower like ourselves.

    1.  PROJECT IMPACTS

    Evaluate the economic, environmental and social impacts of this sustainable practice by completing the Benefits and Impacts form. Also, if possible, provide hard economic data.

     

    Key PRODUCTION Impacts

     

    • Our project clearly shows that Midwest blueberry farmers can quickly switch over to organic practices by following a regimen similar to what we have outlined above.

     

    • Input costs for pesticides drop as much as 20%.
    • Capital requirements of running into four figures and more are needed to secure (used) mechanical weeders such as a “Weed Badger,” sprayers, and trimmers.

     

    • “N” inputs can come from a number of sources. A mix of fish emulsion-kelp-molasses sprayed in spring and fall was successful in trials.

     

    • Seasonal weather conditions have just as much impact on organically grown blueberries as conventionally grown.

     

    Key ECONOMIC Messages

     

    • The market for “naturally grown”/organically grown blueberries is increasing almost exponentially.

     

    • An important component is taste. “Sweeter” varieties such as Bluetta, Blue crop and Jerseys are highest in demand.

     

    • “Naturally grown” (non-certified organic) – can be successful if the blueberries have a strong “taste” component.

     

    • Best markets for “naturally grown” are farmers’ markets, CSAs, and local retail stores.

    1.  OUTREACH

    What methods did you use for telling others about: 1. Your project, 2. Project events or activities, 3. Project results? How and to whom did you communicate this information? Be sure to include details on how many people attended field days or demonstrations, and how information was further disseminated by media covering any events. What plans do you have for further communicating your results? Include press releases, news clippings, flyers, brochures, or   publications developed during this project. Also include photos which might be helpful in telling your story to others. (Mail items separately if you cannot send them electronically.)

     

    Communication of Final Results:

     

    1. Power Point Progress Report was presented in 2014 to blueberry farmers at Great Lakes Expo – Joe Corrado of Moss Funnel Farms made what some said was the first ever presentation on organic conversion to regional blueberry growers assembled in Grand Rapids.

     

    1. Field Day in Fall 2015 with MSU blueberry team – This planned event did not take place due to high demands already placed on the MSU blueberry team. Members, however, were kept appraised of project.

     

    1. Bi-lingual graphic brochure linked to YouTube Video – Concerns about effective distribution of such a brochure were confirmed during a Fall Hispanic growers meeting sponsored by MSU that was not attended by any growers. Conference presenters and organizers used the event to discuss ways to reach out this difficult to this audience. Corrado, with a background in community organizing, suggested

    that Hispanic leaders should work should receive help in organizing their growers into their own non-profit association. He also suggested working through local churches off season as well as summer social events.

     

    1. Poster Presentation – 2015 Great Lakes Fruit Expo – A 48 x 48 poster presentation was shared at the December 2015. The poster presented results of the demonstration grant told thru the words of Dave Harn and Jody Lemmer, two growers involved in the project.

     

    1. A bi-lingual brochure – in both Spanish and English - featuring Harn was distributed with the poster and at other venues.

     

    1. YouTube video - A video of Harn’s testimonial was put on YouTube and linked to the joesblueberries.com website, which was referenced in both the poster and handouts. (see www.joesblueberries.com)

     

    1. The poster presentation was also featured at the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) Reception held at the Expo.

     

    1. State dissemination - Vicki Morrone the Organic farming specialist at Center For Regional Food Systems at MSU was engaged to further disseminate results of the project to statewide audiences thru a ListServ and other channels, include Hispanic groups.

     

    Additional Communications Planned

     

    1. Phone Support – Moss Funnel Farms will continue for the next year to encourage blueberry farms to contact Joe Corrado by phone or email.
    2. MSU Blueberry Site – We are hoping to be able to publish results on the Michigan State University blueberry site.

     

     

    Attached:

     

    • Poster
    • Handouts
    • Photos
    • Budget Summary

     

    1. PROGRAM EVALUATION

    This was the twenty-first year the North Central Region SARE Program sponsored a farmer rancher grant program. As a participant, do you have any recommendations to the regional Administrative Council about this program? Is there anything you would like to see changed? Please fill out the Evaluation form.

     

    (Attached)

     

    VII. BUDGET SUMMARY

    Complete the final budget form and return it with your report. You will only be reimbursed for expenses incurred and items purchased for conducting your project. If you made significant changes to final expenses listed by budget category ($1,000 or more), please include an explanation for the changes. Call Joan Benjamin with questions at: 573-681-5545.

     

    (Attached)

     

    Project objectives:

    With the involvement of MSU researchers and our Extension Agent, we will attack some major organic transition problems:

    • How to build organic matter via amendments and cover crops
    • How organic practices can best be applied to deal with pests and diseases such as Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD) and maggot
    • How to maintain yields with these new practices in the course of two seasons

    Some of the practices we will focus on:

    • Use of cover crops and liquid amendments such as teas, fish emulsion, and trace elements to increase Nitrogen
    • Use of mechanical weeding devices (Friday Hoe)

    Evaluation:

    Methods:

    • Varience in Yield – between 2013, 2014 and 2015

    • Differences in Inputs – charting movement to organics, cost variances

    • Soil Sampling year to year – with special emphasis on growth of organic matter and measurements for N

    • Sales using 2012 as a base year – Noting variances in product sales for “naturally grown” versus traditional methods

    • Change in farmer perceptions regarding use of organic methods (pre and post evaluation of participants

     

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.