Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Organic soybeans draw foreign interest, top dollar

By ANGIE JACKSON
Capital News Service

LANSING – A staple food in high demand overseas continues to provide opportunities for Michigan organic soybean farmers, experts say.

photo credit: Kathy Brockriede

Kathy Brockriede of Columbiaville and her husband own an organic farm where they grow soybeans, among other products. A portion of their crop has been exported to Japan for tofu over the years.

The Brockriedes, whose beans are sometimes combined with those of other local farmers for export, sell to a broker, who supplies it to Japan.

“We found that it’s a value-added niche,” Brockriede said.

And to make a profit in a niche like that, organic farmers must grow for a specified market like the Brockriedes do, said Dan Rossman, Michigan State University Extension farm management director in Gratiot County.

“You want to produce what people want and are willing to pay a value-added price for,” Rossman said, noting that Japanese buyers look to Michigan because they recognize the quality of its soybeans and prefer organic.

In 2008, Michigan’s soybean crop was valued at around $643 million according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA doesn’t keep separate statistics for organic crops.

Kathy Maurer, the financial and creative director of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee in Frankenmuth, said her organization helps develop relationships with Japanese buyers.

“We’re just starting to get our feet wet,” she said about its involvement with international markets. “There have been different countries that we’ve invited buyers from to tour the facilities and farms.

“With the relationship in Asia, it’s not just a business where they go after the cheapest bean. You have to form personal relationships,” she said.

Photo credit: Kathy Brockriede

Jamie Zmitko-Somers, international marketing program manager for the state Department of Agriculture, said organic soybean production for international markets isn’t booming yet, but it’s developing steadily.

“It’s not a super-large trend yet because of the economic slowdown worldwide, but it’s certainly something that will remain important,” she said.

Zmitko-Somers said international buyers choose organic products to ensure the identity and integrity of their products, noting that Michigan, especially the Thumb region, is well-known for soybeans.

In 2009, the top five counties for soybean production were Sanilac, Lenawee, Saginaw, Monroe and Gratiot, according to the USDA.

To ensure the quality that Japanese consumers desire, farmers can go through a detailed process to be certified under the Japan Agriculture Standard.

“It’s a very rigorous certification to put a label on the bag,” Brockriede said.

To meet Japan’s organic standards, she and her husband filled out a 17-page application, had their facility inspected for around $1,000 and took a four-hour class. They were also required to create and maintain an internal operating manual for their farm.

According to the Global Organic Alliance, the Brockriedes are among 17 Michigan farms certified by Japanese standards. Besides soybeans, farmers grow other products such as wheat, corn and barley.

It’s all well-worth it to Brockriede, who said their farm received $30 per bushel for soybeans last year, three-to-four times what they would have made selling the crop in the U.S.

“It’s a good market if you’re willing to jump through the hoops,” she said. “As a farmer, it’s about being able to receive an equitable price for our goods.”

Zmitko-Somers said Japanese consumers are willing to pay more for their organic products because they are typically health-conscious.

And Brockriede said nations like Japan serve as a model for valuing nutritious foods.

“People in other countries buy food to sustain their lives. Our food isn’t dear to us like that. If we really had to pay what our food was worth here, we wouldn’t buy Doritos,” she said.

“They’re way ahead of us.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

Filed under: Agriculture

Cover crops help farmers fight erosion and improve soil

By RACHEL IOVAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — As rainfall in Michigan gets increasingly severe and erratic, fertilizer prices skyrocket and concern grows over the environmental impact of agricultural run-off, many farmers are returning to an old technique that helps address all of those problems.

They’re planting cover crops — low-growing, mat-like plants, such as crimson clover, oilseed radish, winter wheat, cereal rye and cowpea that protect soil from the elements and aerate it.

More fruit and vegetable growers are using cover crops to improve soil quality, said Dale Mutch, a soil biologist at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners.

He said one retailer who supplies growers in Michigan sold a million more pounds of cover crop seed in 2010 than he did last year nationally, a sign that the crops are headed for a comeback.

Sieg Snapp, an MSU associate professor at the biological station, said cover crops provide oxygen to the soil and can, to some extent, replace fertilizer.

“Farmers are always trying to find ways to improve their soil,” said Snapp, and these crops are a good way to do that. “They can really improve the bang for your buck.”

He said cover crops are also of growing interest for organic farmers.

“It’s almost a requirement for organic farmers because they can’t use synthetic fertilizers,” said Mutch. That means that they rely on natural fertilizers, which are more expensive, so getting more out of less fertilizer is necessary.

Kable Thurlow, an MSU Extension educator for Clare and Gladwin counties, said farmers moved away from cover crops when fertilizer prices were low, but they’ve become more popular as fertilizer prices climb.

“It’s funny because it’s an old concept that was used by these farmer’s grandfathers and now it’s coming back again,” said Thurlow.

A recent informational meeting found that a majority of small growers in Clare and Gladwin counties use cover crops.

When Thurlow asked why as many larger growers don’t do the same, the participants said they couldn’t think of a reason.

Snapp said cover crops also minimize erosion.

“Michigan has been having more erratic rainfall and flooding,” said Snapp, “There’s been a tremendous amount of rain recently, which can wash away soil if it’s not protected.”

She said one of the most effective ways to control erosion, caused mostly by rain and wind is to grow something on it. Cover crops are especially useful in areas with sandier soil, like that found near Lake Michigan.

Mutch, who is also Michigan’s representative on the Midwest Cover Crops Council, said cover crops are potential grazing sources as well.

He described how a dairy farmer from the Upper Peninsula brought his cows to Southwest Michigan to graze on cover crops, while the grower used their manure to fertilize his crops.

Kenneth Blight, a beef, swine and corn farmer with 3,000 acres, said MSU soil researchers have been testing cover crops on a few of his acres for the past two years. The year after cover crops were grown on a stand, they planted corn on the same land.

“We had a tremendous yield the next year,” said Blight, “Even weed control was better.”

“It’s a good idea, but you don’t want to spend a ton of money to do it,” said Blight, who added that the costs seem more reasonable for smaller farms.

Mutch said equipment for planting cover crops can be expensive, so growers would welcome a future state or federal program to reduce their financial risk.

Blight said he’ll look into cover crops for his farm in the future after seeing the research results.  His fields have nothing growing in them for nearly six months of the year, and cover crops could keep his fields covered for 11 months.

MSU’s Snapp said, “Many farmers only grow crops for three to four months in the year and the aim is to keep something growing for 11 months of the year.”

Matt McKimmy, an owner of McKimmy Farms in Beaverton, said his farm has been using cover crops extensively for the last two years and although he hasn’t seen many benefits yet, be he’s not discouraged because he knows results are long-term.

This season the farm planted cover crops on nearly half of its’ 2,000 acres.

Snapp said the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation have provided some cover crop grants.

“It’s important for policymakers and farmers to have a long-term understanding of the benefits,” said Snapp. She noted new studies are exploring the potential for cover crops as biofuels as well.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Christmas tree sales still steady

By JULIET WANG
Capital News Service

LANSING—Sales of Michigan-grown Christmas trees have stayed strong even with the struggling economy and competition with artificial trees.

Michigan is the third-largest producer of Christmas trees in the U.S., behind Oregon and North Carolina, according to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association (MCTA).

The top six producing counties are Allegan, Manistee, Missaukee, Montcalm, Oceana and Wexford, according to the Department of Agriculture.

There are an estimated 600 farms in Michigan that grow Christmas trees, according to Marsha Gray, executive director of MCTA.

Christmas trees are a specialty crop and have a large impact on the agriculture industry according to Ken Nye, a commodity specialist for Michigan Farm Bureau.

Revenue from the annual crop of more than 3 million trees in the state is estimated at around $45 million, with $1.3 million from cut greens like wreaths and garlands, according to MCTA.

Russ Godfrey, owner of Morning Star Evergreens in Ossineka, said he hasn’t noticed a decline in sales.

“We’ve actually been very stable for the last three years even with the economy and maybe increased slightly,” said Godfrey. “We gained customers and probably lost some.”

Cathy Genovese of Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm in Oxford, which was started in 1977, said she notices a correlation between sales and the economy.

“There’s a lot of auto and auto-related employment around here, so some people may not put up a tree if they’re struggling with the economy,” said Genovese, who owns the family-run farm. “It’s a major concern because sales are economy-driven.”

Genovese labels her operation more of a specialty Christmas tree farm, and it draws many customers from the northern suburbs of Detroit.

“We’ve seen sales go up and down. Last year it was up a little from the previous year,” Genovese said.

Marsha Gray of MCTA and Nye acknowledge the challenges faced by Christmas tree farms.

“Our growers are under tremendous economic pressures. The fertilizer prices are high, fuel is expensive, and so is labor and energy,” said Gray. “Tree prices have been flat for 15 years. Some have shown a small increase, but on average it has been very flat.”

Nye said, “There is no question the cost of producing Christmas trees has gone up quite a bit compared to the past. It’s a labor-intensive industry and labor cost is high.”

Godfrey said,“We’ve been pretty stable in our pricing over the five-year period. Three to four years ago we increased the prices slightly.

We have a choose-and-cut operation and we provide  a service, an experience of coming out and getting a tree,” said Godfrey. “If people want that experience, they will continue and some people are just not willing to sacrifice that tradition.”

Gray said Michigan has two types of farms. One is choose-and-cut and the other one is large wholesale farms operations that harvest trees for weeks and ship them out.

“Two-thirds to three-fourths of those wholesale trees leave the state. They bring money into Michigan,” she said.  “The biggest markets are Chicago, Texas and Florida.”

Nye is concerned with the misconception of artificial trees as environmentally friendly.

“The real competition is the competition with artificial Christmas trees,” Nye said.

“It’s bad for the environment if the Christmas tree is not sold as the tree was intended to,” said Nye. “Natural Christmas trees are environmentally healthy and do not use oil to produce, unlike artificial trees.”

In addition, many consumers are interested in buying a less expensive tree.

“The economic pressures impacted the prices which consumers want to pay, but not the number of trees sold,” said Gray.

Michigan produces more than a dozen varieties according, to the Department of Agriculture.

Gray said most Christmas tree farms grow five to eight species, depending on the soil and weather conditions.

“Certain family traditions, holiday traditions and the variety of trees help keep the market strong,” said Gray.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Hydroponics: a growing industry in Michigan

By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service

LANSING – Gardening without soil goes back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But it’s not just an ancient story.

Many farmers and indoor gardening enthusiasts in West Michigan have grown plants in water instead of soil for years, a process called hydroponics.

Hydroponics is a technology that allows plants to grow in nutrient-enriched water with artificial lighting and heating.

“You don’t have to water or weed, just put your plants in there. They just grow,” said Kris Van Haitsma, co-owner of Mud Lake Farm in Hudsonville.

Her husband’s family has lived on the farm for more than a century.

The farm floods three or four times a year so soil erosion has been a problem, Van Haitsma said.

She said the couple didn’t want to do traditional farming because tilling and fertilizing would increase erosion.

Therefore, they started hydroponic farming in 2004, using float-style hydroponics to grow lettuce, watercress and herbs.

“We are putting in seedlings every week and harvest every week,” Van Haitsma said.

She said the farm’s two greenhouses produce about 300 pounds of hydroponic vegetables a week and the third one, which is under construction, will increase the yield to 500 pounds.

Plants in hydroponic systems don’t need manure, so there’s no worry about E.coli in lettuce, Van Haitsma said, and they don’t use pesticides, either.

Their farm participates in Community Supported Agriculture, whose members buy shares and get fresh produce regularly. They also serve local restaurants and sell vegetables through the West Michigan Cooperative in Grand Rapids, the region’s first online farmers’ market.

Maryann Esert of Wayland, a Community Supported Agriculture member of Haitsma’s farm, said lettuce from the farm is fresher, more nutritional and tasty.

And it’s interesting to learn how hydroponic systems grow food, she said.

Bridgette Ujlaky, co-owner of a Grand Rapids-based hydroponics business, said more commercial farmers are switching to hydroponics.

For example, Bowerman Blueberries, a 56-year-old farm in Holland, started a vertical hydroponic system to grow 15,000 strawberry plants on a half-acre.

Hydroponics allows longer growing periods and higher yields, which increase farmers’ bottom line, Ujlaky said.

Ujlaky’s Horizen Hydroponics has developed from an online store to a business with two retail outlets. The company sells to growers across the state and internationally.

She and her husband also educate the public about hydroponics and offer classes to gardening clubs in greater Grand Rapids.

Other hydroponics stores in West Michigan include the Green Forest Indoor Garden Supply in Ionia, the Holland Hydroponic Outlet and the Grand Rapid-based Growco Indoor Garden Supply.

Ujlaky said hydroponics enable farmers to grow more food on limited land.

“The opportunity is infinite with food production,” she said. “It will feed the world one day.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Viruses pose threat to blueberry crop

(Michigan State University)

By RACHEL IOVAN
Capital News Service

LANSING—New research from the Department of Agriculture (MDA) and Michigan State University suggests there’s a growing viral threat to blueberry plants in the state.

Two viruses, blueberry shock and scorch, had previously been seen only in the Pacific Northwest and East Coast, but were discovered for the first time in Michigan last year.

The viruses reduce or eliminate the growth of fruit, but don’t threaten human health.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michigan’s blueberry crop is worth $124 million yearly. Van Buren, Ottawa, Allegan, Muskegon and Berrien counties are the top producers.

A summer 2010 study found scorch virus in seven fields in Allegan, Ottawa, Saginaw and Van Buren counties, but the shock virus was not detected. This year all the plants diagnosed with the disease were destroyed.

The scorch virus is named for the burnt appearance of infected blossoms, said Annemiek Schilder, an MSU associate professor of plant pathology.

Robin Rosenbaum, the Plant Industry Section manager for MDA, said the study was done because of concern over a few infected plants.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve,” said Rosenbaum, “Early detection is the only way to contain viruses like these.”

Rosenbaum said MDA ramped up the study to get in front of the virus as quickly as possible.

“If you think you have an opportunity to eradicate a disease, you must have a severe response,” Rosenbaum said.

Schilder said scorch is of higher concern for Michigan blueberries because it usually kills plants, while shock-infected plants may recover over time. She said another problem is that plants can carry a virus for a few years before symptoms start, so growers who don’t see symptoms might not test their plants.

She said that scorch is also more of a concern because it was found in 2009 and 2010, and shock was found only in 2009.

Schilder said her biggest concern is that the extent of scorch isn’t as contained as she’d hoped.

“Scorch was found in more places than expected, which indicates multiple introductions of the virus,” Schilder said.

“We have preliminary indications that Michigan aphids can spread scorch,” said Schilder, who said she is currently doing research to determine if aphids can transmit the virus.

She said scorch is worrisome because infected bushes produce fewer berries and eventually die.

Mike Hansen, the regional supervisor for MDA in southeast Michigan based in St. Joseph County, said the challenge for growers is not that entire fields will die off, but that blueberry growing could become uneconomical if enough plants are affected.

In June and July, the team of researchers, asked all blueberry farms in Michigan to participate in a survey, and Hansen said only a few declined to take part.

Hansen said the survey is important because researchers can’t look at the viruses’ impact on the Pacific and East Coasts and extrapolate what could happen in Michigan because of climate differences.

Mike DeGrandchamp, a partner at DeGrandchamp Farms, which has 150 acres of blueberry fields in South Haven and participated in the survey, said no shock or scorch was found there.

“We always have virus testing in our nursery blueberry stock because if you have a problem you want to know it,” DeGrandchamp said.

Hansen said, “Right now, we’re trying to determine how we got it, how widespread it is and how we can address it.

“We have a very large blueberry industry in Michigan, so we’re best off not letting the virus run loose.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Spread of equine disease linked to decline in use of vaccine

By JULIET WANG

Capital News Service

LANSING—A mosquito-borne disease may have spread among horses in Michigan this year due to a decrease in vaccines used, according to a state expert.

Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) is a virus which can infect horses and humans and is usually carried by birds and mosquitoes.

“I think there was a decline of the use of the vaccine because of the economy. It’s unfortunate because it might mean the loss of a horse,” said Steve Halstead, the state veterinarian in the Department of Agriculture.

The increase of confirmed cases of infected horses this year is not connected to the number of confirmed human cases, Halstead said. There were three confirmed human cases, two in Kalamazoo County and the third in Barry County, according to the Department of Community Health.

Horse cases were reported in 10 counties, including in Allegan, St. Joseph, Cass, Eaton and Oakland.

“Humans cannot not get it from a horse. If a mosquito bites an infected horse then bites a human, the human cannot get it,” said Halstead.   “It cannot travel from horse to horse because the horse doesn’t generate enough of the virus to be transmitted.”

He said vaccination each spring is recommended for horses.

“There are vaccines for humans but it’s not widespread and not readily available to the general public. It has existed for decades,” said Steven Bolin Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Usually the people who get this vaccine are people who work in laboratories and are in frequent contact with this disease,” Bolin said.

James McCurtis, a Community Health communications officer, said the three cases confirmed this year are the only ones reported since 2002.

“It’s a concern but not alarming,” said McCurtis. “We announced it because we want people to be aware of it.”

The human symptoms include chills, headache, nausea and fever.

The symptoms for horses include fever, seizures, loss of appetite and stumbling.  Often the horse is down and unable to get up.

The Agriculture Department has received more than 50 reports of dead horses and 18 horses tested positive for the virus this year.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Huge corn crop causes snags

By LANE BLACKMER
CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

LANSING—Harvested corn is stacking up faster than it can be shipped out of Michigan, leaving some distribution and storage facilities temporarily closed and experts looking for alternate uses.

 

“I can’t get it out as fast as it’s coming in,” said Steve Falkenstein, executive manager of the Andersons Inc. in White Pigeon, a grain storage and handling company that distributes corn and operates ethanol plants.

 

Falkentein said his indoor and outdoor storage areas are full, causing shutdowns of up to three days.

 

Theresa Sisung, communications and programs coordinator of the Michigan Corn Growers Association, said an excess crop is increasingly common.

Michigan has set production records in the past three years, and Sisung said she expects this year to be the fourth.

 

Another reason for this year’s glut is that August was drier than usual, making yields ready earlier than normal, according to Jody Pollok-Newsam, the association’s executive director.

 

That created a storage backup problem because the soybean season is just finishing, Pollok-Newsam said.

 

Another factor in the backup is that trains aren’t coming in fast enough to ship the corn out. Most of Michigan’s corn in 2009 was shipped out of state, said Sisung.

Because shipping is slowed down and many storage facilities are full, some farmers have no place to store their corn.

 

Sisung said the situation isn’t unique to Michigan. There was a surplus of 38 million bushels in Michigan’s 2008-09 growing season, compared with the nationwide total of 1.7 billion. This year, she estimates a Michigan surplus of 44 million bushels.

 

Counties with the highest yields include Huron, Lenawee, Allegan, Monroe, Montcalm, Tuscola, Newaygo and Cass.

 

“Each year, we grow more corn than we have a market for,” said Pollok-Newsam. “That’s why things like ethanol are important.”

 

Falkentein said corn doesn’t go to waste because there is demand, not only in food production, but also for livestock feed and ethanol. The Andersons has an ethanol plant in Albion that converts corn to fuel.

 

“We typically overproduced in the last few years because of the demand for ethanol,” said Rick Hollister, the company’s area sales manager for Michigan. “In years like this where we have extra bushels and yield, the market will eventually absorb it.”

 

Hollister said ethanol doesn’t take corn away from the food or feed markets. In making ethanol, he said, all that’s taken from the corn is the starch. The leftover fat and protein are then turned into a supplement for animal feed.

 

Jeff Sandborn, a corn farmer in Portland who currently has no storage problems, said most of his crop is used for animal feed and ethanol.

 

Sandborn estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of the nation’s corn is used to produce of ethanol. He said profit and efficiency drive farmers to produce more corn.

 

“Farmers grow more corn because there’s more use for it,” he said. “Ethanol is a good use for corn.”

 

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Change urged to help promote urban farms

By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service 

LANSING – Legislators from Detroit and Greenville have teamed up in an effort to ease restrictions on Detroit under the state farming laws.

A bill by Reps. Gabe Leland, D-Detroit, and Mike Huckleberry, D-Greenville, would exclude Detroit from the Michigan Right to Farm Act, which limits the legal right of neighbors to sue farmers about noise and smell complaints.

“By exempting Detroit, the city would be free to apply practical rules to urban agriculture,” said Joe Taylor, Leland’s chief of staff.

The Michigan Right to Farm Act protects farmers from complaints and nuisance lawsuits and prohibits local farming regulations that are more stringent than state ones, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The legislation would allow the city to set different standards.

For example, Taylor said, under the Right to Farm Act a farmer may be allowed to apply pesticides at a wind speed of 10 miles per hour, but if a farm is next to an apartment building, the city should be able to set a lower limit, such as 2 or 5 miles per hour.

“We want to make sure that the city is free to implement the rules that make the best sense for it,” he said.

Under the law, farm operations aren’t considered nuisances if they conform to generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed by the Commission of Agriculture.

Jennifer Holton, a public information officer at the department, said the department opposes exempting any city from the law because it relies on science-based, acceptable practices that allow commercial agriculture to operate safely and responsibly.

Russ Harding, director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Property Rights Network, said the bill would make it more difficult for Detroiters to garden or raise animals.

Midland-based Mackinac Center is a free-market-oriented think tank.

“When you look at Detroit, the city is extremely distressed,” he said. “You don’t want to prevent them from anything they might be able to do to help raise the family.”

But a law professor at Wayne State University, John Mogk, said he supports the bill because the current law doesn’t address farming by city residents.

He said the law was designed to shield existing farms against urban sprawl, but Detroit doesn’t have that problem.

“Instead, the city is in a reverse situation,” Mogk said.

Mogk said environmental concerns related to farming practices, such as water and soil contamination, air pollution and increased water demands, are growing as urban farming expands in Detroit.

Therefore, the city needs its own regulations that promote farming and protect neighborhoods and the environment, he said.

Mogk said Detroit has an estimated 30,000 acres of vacant land and spends about $800,000 a year to maintain a small portion of that.

Urban farming releases the city from that financial burden, he said.

According to the Detroit Agriculture Network, the city has more than 900 farming lots.

Kami Pothukuchi, an associate professor in urban planning at Wayne State, said urban farming benefits the city by creating jobs, providing fresh and healthy food, and increasing property tax revenues.

Holton said the Department of Agriculture will continue discussions with farming organizations and Detroit officials to promote agricultural opportunities.

But Pothukuchi said to support urban agriculture, the city needs a full-scale exemption from the Right to Farm Act.

Although the bill as written applies only to Detroit, she suggested that Detroit partner with other cities, such as Grand Rapids and Flint, where urban farming thrives.

The bill is pending in the House’s Urban Policy Committee.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Poor pickings plague apple growers this year

By JULIE MIANECKI

Capital News Service

LANSING – Phyllis Kilcherman, co-owner of Christmas Cove Farm in Northport, normally expects her 20 snow apple trees to produce about 60 bushels of fruit.

This year, they yielded only two.

“We had a visit by Jack Frost in early May,” Kilcherman said. “But we’re lucky we got any apples. We’re blessed to have what we have.”

An unusually warm week in spring followed by a late freeze caused this year’s apple crop to be smaller than usual, according to Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

The committee works to improve the profitability of the state’s apple industry through market development, research and education.

Donohue said the crop is about 20 to 25 percent smaller than usual, but about 47 percent smaller than last year’s crop, the largest in Michigan’s history. The stress that such a big crop put on trees added to this year’s problems, she said.

“Someone I was talking to had been growing for years. He was about 50 year old and told me this was the earliest he could ever remember being done picking,” Donohue said.

In addition to producing fewer apples, growing conditions caused those apples to mature more quickly, which means orchards must pick them sooner than usual, she said.

Carol Ross, co-owner of Stony Creek Orchard and Cider Mill in Romeo, said that hurts sales at orchards that allow visitors to pick apples themselves.

“Usually you can offer U-pick until the end of October,” Ross said. “On the average, everything’s running about two weeks early. If you don’t harvest, then the apples are just going to fall on the ground. Everything’s ripe now, so that means you need to get them off or you’re going to lose them all.”

Ross said her employees will pick the remaining apples, which will then be sold commercially. She added that although the farm will still make money, it will be less than usual.

“You make more with U-pick because you get families out and they’ll buy donuts, they’ll buy cider,” Ross said. “There’s going to be a profit loss.”

Shirley Hartstock, manager of Klackle Orchards in Greenville, said the west side of the state is experiencing the same situation.

And although there are fewer apples, prices won’t go up because Michigan doesn’t control the apple market, she said.

“Across the country there is a good crop, so prices are not going to jump,” Hartstock said.

The Apple Committee’s Donohue said farms often expand into other crops or services to

provide financial security when apple crops don’t do as well as expected.

For example, Klackle Orchards has a pavilion for sporting and other events, such as weddings. Stony Creek sells products such as jams, butters and salad dressings. Christmas Cove  also grows cherries, peaches and plums, and specializes in what Kilcherman called “apples with a history”.

“Our oldest apple dates back to the time of Christ,” Kilcherman said. “It was one that the Romans and Napoleon would have been eating during that time.”

Donohue said the Apple Committee is working to diversify the state’s markets as well.

“We export, in a typical year, somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of our total crop,” she said. “Where Michigan can be very competitive is straight south, so we are exporting primarily to all of Latin America, Mexico, islands in the Caribbean.”

Buyers come to Michigan from around the world to taste apples and observe orchards and processing facilities, Donohue said.

“The group that I gave a tour to last weekend was from India, Russia, Malaysia and Thailand,” Donohue said.

Although Washington state is the biggest American exporter to countries across the Pacific Ocean, an innovative trade route through Egypt can put Michigan on a level playing field.

“Believe it or not, when they cut through the Suez Canal, we can be competitive there,” she said.

Ken Nye, a commodity specialist who works with fruits and vegetables at the Michigan Farm Bureau, said this year’s small crop has damaged trade relationships formed during last year’s record growing season.

“Unfortunately, there’s usually someone else available to take those export markets if we don’t have the volume,” Nye said. “You’d like to have a little more consistent production so you can develop a market over time. The problem is, here in 2010, we’ve kind of given away some of those markets and it will take some long-term activity to get those back.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Grants aimed at treating runoff from food processing

By RACHEL IOVAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — The latest round of Department of Agriculture (MDA) grants will promote new cost-effective ways to manage wastewater from food processing — a rising concern in growing specialty crops.

The grants to companies in Frankfort and Grand Haven and to Michigan State University are part of a larger initiative to enhance the state’s agriculture industry, including food processing, said Michelle Crook, an engineering specialist at MDA.

Of the $1.4 million Michigan received for agricultural development ventures in federal dollars, $196,200 will be divided among three projects focusing on wastewater practices.

“There is a lot that is unknown about the science. We are still looking for new techniques to treat wastewater,” Crook said.

Specialty crops include fruit, vegetables and greenhouse crops.

Processors have traditionally applied wastewater on a limited number of acres in an economically and environmentally effective manner, said Crook.

In the last few years, however, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment started seeing problems with high amounts of carbon in soil, she said.

Crook was part of the committee that reviewed grant applications.

Processing of specialty crops results in higher amounts of carbon in wastewater because of the natural sugars washed off fruits and vegetables.

“Fruit and vegetables produce more wastewater because, depending on the product, they may need to be cooled, cut up, rinsed or packaged,” said Ken Nye, a commodity specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

By comparison, corn and soybeans, which aren’t specialty crops, aren’t rinsed after harvesting, so their production results in less wastewater, Nye said.

Steve Safferman, an associate professor of biosystems and engineering at MSU said the most common technique for disposal is to irrigate the soil with wastewater and let the land naturally filter it.

But, if the soil is saturated for too long, carbon in the wastewater may sink deep into the ground, depleting oxygen and causing an environment that alters metals in soil, such as iron, manganese and arsenic, he said.

“These metals occur naturally in the soil in small amounts, but when excess carbon is absorbed, the metals can mobilize,” said Safferman.

The metals may then seep into groundwater, and could contaminate water sources.

Crook said, “We don’t know yet if the nutrient content or the volume is the problem, or if the soil needs a longer resting period so it can become aerobic again.”

Elaine Brown, executive director of Michigan Food and Farming Systems in East Lansing, said the industry must find where environmentally sound food wastewater management and economic feasibility intersect.

Lakeshore Environmental Inc., a consulting firm in Grand Haven, received a $46,200 grant to look into alternatives of wastewater filtration, according to Joel Kenyon, project director for the company. Its experimental technique is called freeze crystallization.

With the new method, wastewater goes through a pump that separates the filtered water from the chemicals.

As the clean water freezes, it turns into snow, which concentrates the remaining chemicals that can’t freeze. A much smaller amount of impure water remains, because most of the purified water has already been extracted, Kenyon said.

“Instead of treating thousands of gallons, we can significantly reduce the amount of water that needs to be treated,” Kenyon said.

Treatment costs depends on several factors, primarily quantity.

“Most food processors have excellent wastewater treatment,” said Kenyon, “but everybody is looking to lower cost.”

Kenyon said that Lakeshore Environmental is trying to take advantage of Michigan’s cold winters to help with the freezing process.

“The main question is, if you install this system, can it be integrated to cause a big cost reduction,” said Kenyon.

MSU’s Safferman, said that installation of wastewater processing systems is expensive and may take eight to 10 years to pay off, which is a long payback period in the agriculture industry.

The other two grants were $75,000 for a MSU study of the effects of poplar tree growth on disposal of wastewater and metal contamination of groundwater, and $75,000 to Smeltzer Orchard Co. in Frankfort to look at keeping soil oxygenated so bacteria can digest wastewater.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

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