Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Upcoming fertilizer restrictions intended to protect water quality


Capital News Service

LANSING — Phosphorous fertilizers will soon be restricted as the state addresses one way that the nutrient infiltrates waters and spurs the creation of zones of low oxygen that harm aquatic life.

The ban begins next January. Exempt are new lawns and those that test low for phosphorous, as well as farmers and golf courses where management has taken a state-approved fertilizer training.

Michigan is one of five Great Lakes states with limits on the nutrient that promotes algae and weed growth in water. When the weeds die, the bacteria that feasts on them sucks up the oxygen in the water and creates dead zones that kill fish and other aquatic species.

Minnesota and Illinois already had similar limits in place while New York’s restrictions will take effect next January. Wisconsin is reviewing existing restrictions.

Experts say the goal is to keep phosphorous from settling into lakes and streams, noting that fertilizer that gets onto pavement, frozen ground or compacted soil often runs off into waterways.

Michigan recently banned phosphorous in dishwashing detergents after previously outlawing phosphorous-heavy laundry detergents.

Although a naturally occurring element, the near-shore areas of the Great Lakes have had consistently elevated levels of phosphorous due to human use. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, four of the five Great Lakes had elevated levels in the near-shore areas in 2009.

“This creates problems outside of threats to ecosystems,” said John Nevin, public affairs advisor of the International Joint Commission, an agency that advises the U.S. and Canada on water issues. “This affects the quality of drinking water, causes illness in swimmers, disrupts fisheries and leads to beach closures.”

Fertilizer isn’t the only culprit. Agricultural run-off, inadequate municipal wastewater and residential septic systems, industrial livestock, ecosystem changes from invasive mussels, and climate change impact are all likely factors, according to a recent commission report.

Michigan’s ban only applies to commercial and residential lawns. Farm restrictions don’t seem to be on the horizon, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Farmers routinely check their soil and are very aware of nutrient levels,” said Robin Rosenbaum, plant industry section manager at the department. “They typically don’t use any more fertilizer than they need to.”

Groups lobbying for the new ban recognize agricultural use as a significant part of the problem, but, nonetheless, credit the law for taking a step in the right direction.

Farm use “is certainly a contributor, but at this point it is not reasonable to ban phosphorous in agricultural applications,” said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., the communications director at the Michigan Environmental Council. “But we do need to continue efforts to educate both farmers and those at golf courses on responsible fertilizer use.”

A uniform ban across the state makes it easier for everyone, including fertilizer manufacturers, McDiarmid said.

Rosenbaum said statewide restrictions had been discussed since 2003, adding that opposition to the new law was light.

Jeff Fedorchak is vice president of government affairs at ServiceMaster, a large fertilizer company based in Memphis, Tenn., with brands that include Trugreen and Terminix.

Fedorchak called the new law “a common-sense approach agreed to by multiple stakeholders, and it enjoyed strong bipartisan support with legislators as a result.”

ServiceMaster partnered with the Michigan Environmental Council to support the legislation.

Several counties and cities had bans in place before the state law passed, making it difficult for fertilizer companies. Existing phosphorous restrictions will stay in effect, but the new law trumps any future restrictions by local governments.

The success of local restrictions helped push the state law through, said Executive Director Laura Rubin of the Ann Arbor-based Huron River Watershed Council. In 1997, Ann Arbor adopted a ban that exempts agricultural uses. The city council found a 36 percent decrease in phosphorous levels at urban-area creeks between 2003 and 2008, according to a 2009 report.

“We have seen a definite trend of reductions in phosphorous since the fertilizer restrictions,” Rubin said. “The greater reductions in urban areas speak to the effectiveness of the ordinances.”

Rosenbaum said Agriculture and Rural Development will enforce the ban through periodic testing of lawns treated by fertilizer companies. Enforcement will largely be “complaint- based,” but the department will check regularly with companies that apply fertilizers.

The International Joint Commission’s Nevin said that while the restrictions address part of the problem, scientists still aren’t sure of the sources for all the phosphorous in the Great Lakes.

“What we need is more monitoring and a regular review of inputs into the lakes. Before we can stop it, we need to answer the question – where is it coming from?”

Brian Bienkowski writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Agriculture

Pot growers seek tips for greener grass

Capital News Service

LANSING – Greener pastures are in sight for medical marijuana growers wanting expert advice on how to raise healthy plants.

Inquiries on how to cultivate the plant have increased slightly in the past few years, Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) experts say.

MSUE, which is mainly involved in more traditional agricultural endeavors, is a resource for some medical marijuana suppliers who want accurate information on how to grow the plants effectively.

Jeanne Himmelein, an Extension educator based in Kalamazoo, works with state greenhouses and nurseries on production and environmental quality. She said she has received only five marijuana-related calls in the past two years.

“The people that call me are very educated in regards to growing this. They are not hobbyists.

“They are licensed to produce their own medical marijuana. Strictly the calls I get are production issues, from people who are licensed growers,” she said.

The primary questions that concern her callers are about insect and disease control. For answers, she directs them to biological control suppliers.

“If this is a business and a medical thing, I am comfortable with giving them as much information as possible on insect control and nutritional advice,” she said. “I just want them to do it the safest way.

“I’m impressed with the people asking about insect and disease control instead of going to a local nursery and grabbing something off the shelf,” she said.

An upcoming bulletin from MSUE, “Growing Indoor Plants,” will educate readers on techniques for keeping house plants, such as optimal light conditions and basics of nutrition.

The bulletin, Himmelein said, will not specifically be for medical marijuana growers but “would be a decent guide for anyone growing any type of indoor plant.”

That procedure is more open than the one Colorado State University Extension employs. It prohibits staff and volunteers from providing any advice or assistance about marijuana cultivation, although medical marijuana is legal in Colorado.

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, a critic of marijuana legalization, said he has no problem with MSUE providing advice, but would like it also to provide information on the possible hazards from mold and chemicals.

“They should be giving advice on dangers. Many growers in this new agricultural industry see dollar signs, but don’t realize it is a product for patients with damaged immune systems,” he said.

Having received about seven calls since medical marijuana became legal in Michigan, MSUE senior educator Thomas Dudek said he tries to relay basic information on plant physiology to first-time growers.

“People need to have a fairly good knowledge of fertilizer, irrigation and growing media,” said Dudek, a horticulture and marketing expert based in Ottawa County.

He takes existing information about growing other indoor plants and adapts it to the situation when answering such calls.

“Obviously we’re a land grant university that creates knowledge for people in businesses. If we have a business for growing plants, then you tend to look at MSU as a resource for that type of information,” he said.

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Executive Director Allen St. Pierre said many entrepreneurs starting medical marijuana businesses are senior citizens going into retirement.

That’s true in Michigan, said Michigan NORML Executive Director Steve Thompson, who is based in Eastpointe.

He said today’s retirees grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and many of these entrepreneurs have had experience with cannabis.

“A lot of senior citizens are like myself — they’re hippies. We started this so it’s time we finish it,” he said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Agriculture

State guidelines promote on-farm markets


Capital News Service


LANSING — As the number of farm markets increases, state agriculture laws are adapting to meet the changes.

On-site farm markets are becoming more common and were recently added to the Michigan Right to Farm Act.

The law includes “marketing produce at roadside stands or farm markets” in its definition of a farm operation but doesn’t define farm markets or describe specific marketing activities, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Last year, the state adopted the Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices, or GAAMPs, for farm markets. The guidelines were developed to provide direction as to what constitutes an on-farm market and farm market activities and help resolve issues associated with zoning, buildings, parking, driveway access and signage.

Tom Kalchik, chair of the farm market GAAMPs review committee, said the guidelines resulted from demands from those involved with on-farm, or direct sales, activities.

Steve Klackle, owner of Klackle Orchards in Greenville, said that the GAAMPs address local regulation problems that farmers frequently experience.

“In my conversations with farm marketers I have heard, I won’t call them nightmares, but stories about, ‘they made me do this’ and ‘they made me do that’ and ‘it’s so confusing’ in terms of local regulations, so this isn’t an isolated issue that happens in certain areas. It’s throughout the state,” he said.

Kalchik, who is also director of Michigan State University’s Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources, said almost 6,400 farms were involved with direct sales in 2007, a 29 percent increase from 2002.

Revenue from their sales rose almost 58 percent during that period.

“Farm markets have become more on the radar for local governments and local people,” he said.

“The farmers that are practicing on-farm sales said, ‘Look, we’re running into these problems where the local units of government say that because we’re selling on our farm, we’re are no longer considered agriculture. They want to call us retail, all we’re doing is selling our farm products and they’re saying we don’t have a right to do that’,” Kalchik said.

The1981 Right to Farm Act and offers farmers protection from nuisance lawsuits and complaints if they follow the GAAMPs, which are reviewed annually by the Agriculture Commission.

Wayne Whitman, Right to Farm Program manager said, “When our department determines that a farm is following the GAAMPs that apply to it, a court shall not find that farm to be a public or private nuisance, so it provides farms an opportunity to earn nuisance protection.”

He said that the guidelines are recommended, but not enforceable.

As the GAAMPs for farm markets demonstrate, the law also helps protect farmers against local regulations that may be more restrictive than state ones.

Klackle said, “Rather than viewing it as protection against anything, I would view the GAAMPs for farm markets as making it a little easier, a little more business-friendly for the farmer to try and do business.”

Kalchik said that when local governments try to apply the rules and regulations for beauty shops or hardware stores to farm markets, it becomes too restrictive.

Klackle said that it isn’t feasible for some farm markets to make the improvements that other types of businesses might be required to make.

He said that the GAAMPs can make it easy to operate a farm market by addressing parking, access and use issues, such as allowing farmers to sell their agricultural products in agricultural zones, even though retailing is more of a commercial activity.

He said GAAMPs address the inconsistency of local regulations throughout the state.

“GAAMPs will help make it a little easier to deal with local zoning and building officials by creating more of a uniform blanket that applies around the state. One of the problems is that all townships are different and some townships treat things differently than others,” he said.

He said GAAMPs can mitigate disputes about farmers being treated differently depending, on whom they know in the township or issues of fairness between competing business in neighboring townships with drastically different regulations.

Kalchik said that while the farm market GAAMPs provides some protection, the issue of farm sales and agritourism is much broader than the Right to Farm Act.

He said that the farm market GAAMPs differs from others because not every part of a farm market is an agricultural activity. Farm owners should remember that they still must comply with local rules and regulations.

Klackle said that while the GAAMPs may not spur the creation of farm markets on their own, they will make the process easier.

“Hopefully those who are doing it or those who wish to get into it will find it a little more receptive at the local level. Ideally the farmer could present the GAAMP to the local officials and say, ‘I’m entitled to do this, but let’s work together on it, let’s formulate a plan and see what works here for me’,” he said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.



Filed under: Agriculture

Training seeks to boost farm market management

Capital News Service

LANSING – As farmers markets in Michigan continue to grow in size and popularity, a new initiative to train their managers is underway.

The new Market Managers Certificate Program aims at educating farmers market operators on how to do more for their vendors to increase sales and participation.

Maggie Smith, administrative assistant at the Michigan Farmers Market Association in East Lansing, said 36 managers were certified in March after six training sessions

The program helps communities and local economies with farmers markets work better, she said.

Topics covered include business planning, market growth management, human relations and conflict management, market governance, policy, regulations and fundraising, Smith said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market Promotion Program provided a $92,440 grant that partly financed this year’s training.

Smith said most managers are part-time or seasonal employees and many have less than two years of experience. She said the certificate program could greatly benefit those with less experience.

A speaker at one session, Randy Hampshire, of Hampshire Farms in Kingston, said the program greatly assisted newer managers to “learn what to do to make their farmers market better,” including how to reach out better to participating farmers.

“All you have to do is pick up on a couple things and that makes all the difference,” he said.

More seasoned managers share their experience through the program. “There’s some history they can share,” he said.

Hampshire said market outreach is essential and suggested training managers to emphasize how relationships with their vendors would improve markets. Not reaching out, he said, can hurt those relationships.

In Pontiac, market managers “took 15 years before they visited farmers,” said Hampshire, whose farm no longer participates in the Pontiac Farmers Market. He advocated surveying vendors to see if they are making money and how markets could improve their profitability.

Hampshire also said making market visits a family-focused activity, with events like petting zoos and corn mazes, could attract more customers.

He said a higher quality of food sold and friendlier atmosphere are distinguishing characteristics that more farmers markets could capitalize on.

“The big companies can’t compete with that,” he said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

New website provides information to farmers

Capital News Service

LANSING — Farmers can now access up-to-date agricultural information with a click of the mouse.

Extension News for Agriculture, a free new website, provides information on agricultural and entrepreneurial topics and has already attracted close to 2,000 visitors, according to Michigan State University Extension.

“This is going to be an exciting site for farmers and all our stakeholders,” said Wendy Powers, director of agriculture and agribusiness for MSU Extension.

It’s a brainchild of Powers, who said that she wanted a means to consolidate the service’s information and filter it down to farmers.

“Farmers and agriculture workers can now access a wide range of information and support in one convenient place, which will save them a great deal of time and even money, she said. “We believe that this is going to become an essential tool to farmers across the state and beyond.”

The site features information about a variety of topics from about 170 contributors, mostly Extension field educators and MSU professors.

Adam Kantrovich, Ottawa County’s Extension director, has already contributed articles on financial management and estate planning and said he looks forward to writing more in-depth articles.

“It’s not all about direct production,” he said. “We also strive to provide information that’ll teach farmers how to assess their financial strengths and weaknesses and how to manage their operations and ultimately improve their financial performance.”

Kantrovich and other educators will also post articles on basic accounting methods, financial statements, tax management, leasing contracts, crop and disease management and other production-related subjects.

Powers said the material will be abstracts of larger topics to avoid “information overload.”

“We don’t intend to make the articles very long but the site will refer users to external links for extra information,” she said. “We want users to only have to read through material that’s relevant to them.”

Part of the plan is to have users subscribe to topics pertinent to their operations, Powers said. Through the free subscription, users will be notified through their cell phones each time new material is posted.

“We realize that some of our users may not have a high-speed Internet connection or any Internet connection at all,” Kantrovich said. “By reaching them through their cell phones, farmers are sure to get information and only the information they’ve subscribed to.”

Duke Elsner, the Grand Traverse County Extension educator for wine and grape growers, said he couldn’t wait until his younger and tech-savvy growers found out about the online resource.

“Our younger wave of farmers will be excited,” he said. “Even the older ones are really keen on doing good business and will not let this good opportunity pass.”

Elsner said that many local farmers haven’t had time to get in and “play with the site” but he said he’s positive that use will take off with a bang, once it does.

Abbey Dorr is a livestock, corn and soybean farmer in Lawrence. She is also a member of Michigan Farm Bureau State Young Farmer Committee who learned about the website at a livestock committee meeting.

“I’m excited about it and hope I can get the information I need to make my business more profitable,” she said. “That includes getting rid of diseases and pests.”

Dorr said she’s also concerned about conservation matters and hopes the website will provide guidelines on how to protect groundwater.

Powers said that although the site was just launched, it will expand as soon as farmers and other users request specific information. Extension staff will also continue to tap stakeholders’ needs by making regular farm visits.

But for farmers who still prefer regular newsletters, the site is an added way to distribute information.

“It’s a very useful site, but it’s not at that point yet,” Powers said. “We are continuing to improve on it and add more features, so stay tuned.”

MSU Extension News for Agriculture can be found at

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Growers welcome, critics leery of genetically modified sugar beets

Capital News Service

LANSING – Sugar beet farmers are upbeat about a federal decision to permit the continued use of the Roundup Ready sugar beets, a genetically engineered crop.

“There’s overwhelming support for this technology and the farmers see no problem with it at all,” said Bob Boehm, manager of the Michigan Farm Bureau’s Commodity and Marketing Department.

But farmers want more access to the technology, he said, and are still concerned about complying with federal requirements.

Boehm said he’s confident that sugar beet growers will have sufficient support from field specialists and Extension services to assist with meeting regulations.

Early last month, the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services announced that farmers could continue growing sugar beets that have been genetically engineered, (GE) to resist the herbicide known as Roundup, but only under certain conditions.

The agency is charged with regulating genetically engineered organisms and will enforce the conditions until it completes a full environmental impact assessment, according to the agency.

Though Michigan doesn’t have a statewide regulatory process that protects farmers from market failures due to such technology, Boehm said that he isn’t worried because the Farm Bureau relies on “the best science available and strong regulatory protocols.”

U.S. Sen. Debbi Stabenow, D-Lansing., Senate Agriculture Committee chair, praised the decision to allow planting this spring.

“Sugar beets are a major economic driver of Michigan’s agriculture industry,” she said.  “Michigan is on the leading edge of national beet sugar production, and this decision comes at a crucial moment when farmers need certainty to efficiently plan their crops.”

In 2009, Michigan harvested more than 3.5 million tons of sugar from about half a million acres of harvested sugar beets, according to Michigan Sugar Co., a cooperative owned by more than 1,000 growers based in Bay City.     The crop is mostly grown around Sebewaing and Saginaw.

GE crops are associated with lower production costs and higher yields, but critics say that they could cause potential environmental and health risks.

“There’s a lot of scientific analysis showing the safety of genetically modified crops,” said Rebecca Grumet, a professor of genetics, plant breeding and biotechnology at Michigan State University.  “These crops are more tested than anything we’ve ever eaten.”

Grumet is co-author of an upcoming book examining concerns about the impacts of GM technology on the environment and human health.

“Environmental Safety of Genetically Engineered Crops,” Grumet’s new book, says that there is no inherent danger or difference in the nutritional value of GE food products.  That conclusion is based on 50 independent scientific studies by different groups in different places in the world, according to the book.

But even if there’s a consensus on safety, the book says there’s no guarantee of safety as more foods with new genetic traits are developed.

George Kimbrell, a senior attorney and policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, said some Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) safety processes are too antiquated to detect problems with emerging biotechnology products.

Moreover, it’s hard for independent organizations to perform their own testing on such products because of patent restrictions, Kimbrell said.

“You have to get the permission of companies and they have to approve your research — it’s a case where patent controls research.”

Kimbrell also said there’s a lack of transparency in GE safety regulatory procedures.

“It’s very important for the public to understand how the government is regulating new bioengineered products,” he said.

The center has been lobbying for compulsory independent pre-market testing by the government to certify the safety of products before they can be sold for human consumption.

The FDA, the agency responsible for food safety, expects companies to perform safety and nutritional testing on their own without any requirement to submit their reports for evaluation, Kimbrell said.

“But even when companies volunteer such reports, the safety verification process is kept confidential,” he said.

The center also wants regulations mandating labeling of GE products.

“We believe that consumers need to know what they are feeding their families,” Kimbrell said.  “If these companies are proud of what they produce, they should make them public.”

FDA regulations require labeling of production processes only when food products are nutritionally different or if their uses are different from similar products.

Siobhan DeLancey, a press specialist with FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, said that the agency is more focused on the quality of the end products, not the processes used.

“We require labeling where there could be some allergenic or toxic reactions from the use of products,” she said.

The center, which also represents companies in legal suits about genetically engineered hazards, hasn’t documented any health complaints about such products.  But Kimbrell said that in the case of such complaints, labels could provide a lead to the cause of the problem.

MSU’s Grumet, who works closely with farmers, said sugar beet growers want the Roundup Ready crops because of “terrible” weed problems in the past.

“With Roundup Ready seeds, they are able to produce more at less cost,” she said.

Grumet also said that farmers are knowledgeable, savvy and skillful and often weigh their options before planting such seeds on large scale.

“The concept that companies are forcing stuff on farmers isn’t true at all,” she said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Higher prices feed food-versus-fuel fight

Capital News Service

LANSING—As the United Nations announced record-high food prices in January, a new round of debate in Michigan centered on the connection between food and energy.

Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service

For Michigan farmers, the issue is the use of a growing proportion of the corn crop to make ethanol.

Michigan has five operating ethanol plants and two more under construction, according to Jeff Sandborn, vice president of the Michigan Corn Growers Association. In 2009, approximate 27 percent of Michigan corn was used to produce ethanol.

Sandborn recently told the association that the argument that “if we use corn for ethanol production, there won’t be any corn left to feed livestock” is a misconception.

He said, “All the nutritional value of corn is maintained in distillers grains,” a byproduct of the ethanol production process, “and is returned to the livestock industry as high-quality feed.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization, a UN agency, reported that in January, the Cereal Price Index was the highest since July 2008. The Sugar Price Index was up 5.4 percent from December. And the oils/fats price index was nearing the June 2008 record. The World Bank described food prices as being at “a dangerous level.”

In addition, other factors like extreme weather, imports and fuel prices lead to the fluctuation of food prices.

The Corn Growers Association calls criticism that biofuel will increase food prices “patently false and misguided.”

It said, “Ethanol production uses only the starch portion of the kernel, which is abundant and relatively low in value. Also ethanol is produced from field corn fed to livestock, not sweet corn grown for humans.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation said that without increased biofuel production, oil and gasoline prices would be 10 to 15 percent higher.

Ethanol, as one of the most common biofuels, saves U.S. consumers at least $38 billion in fuel costs each year, the federation said.

In a report, Joachim Von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington D.C., said increased biofuel demand accounted for 30 percent of the increase in grain prices between 2000 and 2007.

If food prices rise, the report also said, low-income households will lose benefits on the food consumption side but gain little on the energy side if energy prices decline.

Scott Swinton, an agriculture economist at Michigan State University, said he is unaware of any studies of the latest price rise. But its causes are probably the same as in 2007 — a combination of supply and demand factors.

About two-thirds of the 2007 price spike could be attributed to a rising standard of living and improving diets around the world, he said.

Another important factor that accounted for 30 percent of the rising food prices was biofuel demand, Swinton said.

“The biofuel demand is driven by two factors, and the first one is oil prices. When oil prices arrive at a high level, ethanol and biodiesel become cost-effective substitutes,” he said, adding that U.S. policies spur the demand for biofuels, which is the second factor.

“The key debate is about the effect of corn grain ethanol, because corn grain is not a very greenhouse gas-efficient biofuel,” Swinton said.

Swinton also said it’s inefficient for government to say a particular industry is the way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “It is a good idea to encourage research, and it is a bad idea to require the use of certain kinds of alternative energy,” he said.

The World Bank has warned that the continuous rise of food prices will drive more people into poverty and said using “less food-intensive biofuel technologies” will be a high priority to mitigate higher prices.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Growers smell trouble in stink bug invasion

Capital News Service

Credit: USDA

LANSING — The name of the new invader is enough to make people laugh, but its potential peril is serious enough to make fruit growers weep.

The brown marmorated stink bug, which is notorious for wiping out horticultural crops, has been discovered in Southwest and central Michigan.

The stink bug, known for its destructive feeding habits, could wreak havoc on Berrien County’s fruit, vegetable and ornamental plant industries if immediate action is not taken, according to Larry Olsen.  He is the co-director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) North Central region Integrated Pest Management Center and an entomologist at Michigan State University.

A research student from MSU collected the stink bug, which gets its name from the smell it emits when crushed, in Berrien County.  An MSU Extension educator discovered another in Eaton County.

Entomologists from the USDA have since verified both samples as an invader species similar to a common species native to Michigan.

“There is a huge potential for significant crop damage and loss in Berrien County and other parts of the state as its population rises,” Olsen said.  “This bug infests strawberries, apples, peaches, cherries, vegetables and ornamental plants, all produced in large quantities in this county.”

Berrien County ranks second in acres of fruit and berry and third in annual revenue of more than $36 million, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

Olsen said that eastern U.S., where the stink bug was first spotted more than a decade ago, has experienced great damage to its fruit industry.

“Since it’s just newly discovered in Michigan, we can only estimate the kind of damage it can cause by looking at its impact in other regions, but it can be devastating,” he said.

In 2010, growers in Pennsylvania lost an estimated 40 to 50 percent of their peach crop to the stink bug, according to Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.   While damaged fruits sold for processing may sell for $7 to $10 a bushel, undamaged ones could garner up to $20 to $60 on the fresh fruit market.

The winged invader, which can attack an estimated 300 species of plants, also destroys apples, peaches, blackberries, sweet corn, field corn and soybeans, according to Penn State.

Bill Shane, who is responsible for tree fruit research at the MSU Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center in Berrien County, said that there were cases where entire peach crops were damaged in the East.

He said that the stink bug is new to the state and that his center is trying to learn from other states how to head them off before they get to orchards.

Shane is on a team of researchers and Extension specialists collaborating with USDA entomologists and experts from universities in the affected states.

According to Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, research needs to be done before the state can take action.

“We just need to continue funding the state’s arms of research, including extension services at MSU,” he said.

Shane said that the stink bug nests and multiplies on field crops such as soybeans and corn and comes out in swarms once the crops mature and dry down, heading towards orchards and other plants.

“So we’ll be trying to see how we can use a chemical barrier on the outside edges of the orchards and vineyards we’re trying to protect,” Shane said.

One strategy is to spray the beetles while they are in the grass and weeds along their travel route to reduce the number reaching the orchards.

However, the waxy, hard-shelled bug is well-adapted to survive harsh chemicals.

“Its outer skin is repellant to water so that it doesn’t readily absorb chemicals,” Shane said.  “The bugs are also relatively large and require a bigger chemical dose to destroy.”

He said that the bug uses a thin, sharp-pointed proboscis to pierce and suck out nutrients inside plant tissue, bypassing insecticide on the plant surface.

But the pest’s body features aren’t its only survival mechanisms.

“Certainly any pest that moves in such vast numbers over large areas and has a wide host range is suited for getting established quickly and is harder to control,” Shane said.

The bug is also a prolific breeder, producing up to two generations each year in the region, Shane said.  In other parts of the world, it’s known to reproduce up to six times a year. Each female can lay up to 400 eggs per generation.

Researchers are looking at alternative ways to manage the pest.

Olsen said that his team is searching for the stink bug’s natural enemies to import into infested regions to keep the population low.

But a natural enemy must be specific to the species, according to Olsen.

“It has to be one that feeds or infests only on the pest and not on other animal, plant or beneficial insect species, and this takes a lot of research just to be sure,” he said.

Though the population of the marmorated stink bug is still relatively low in Michigan, according to Olsen, reports from the USDA indicate that even small populations can cause serious economic damage if left unchecked.

“We still need to do a large survey to measure its population and spread,” Olsen said.  “Then we also need a second survey to measure its economic impact in the region.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

State pushes for more young farmers

Capital News Service

LANSING — As the state’s agricultural sector continues to grow, so does the need for young farmers, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau.

While the average age of the state’s farmers was about 54 in 2007, the Department of Agriculture believes that number is currently higher — evidence of an old agricultural infrastructure in need of a youthful jolt.

Joe Ott, chair of the Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and a grain grower in Lenawee County, said it’s important to get young farmers involved in the community to ensure that small-and medium-sized family-owned farms survive.

However, Ott, who lives in Sand Creek, said it’s tough to get financial backing to start.

“The banking industry has got so strict and tough that it’s just so hard for a young guy –especially if his family wasn’t in farming — to get his foot in the door and get credit established,” Ott said.

“They almost have to have someone willing to stick their neck out and sign on the dotted line with them to get started,” he said.

Jeff  VanderWerff, vice chair of the organization’s Young Farmers,  said they are eligible for federal loans but  some are reluctant to apply.

“There is a fair amount of skepticism about those programs,” VanderWerff said. “A lot of young farmers don’t necessarily want the government to have their fingers on everything that we do.”

Instead, VanderWerff, who farms in Casnovia, points to more local efforts, including programs with the Farm Bureau, that help them connect with communities while improving their business and marketing skills.

“It’s going to help them grow their business and grow themselves personally through professional development training, networking and social interaction,” VanderWerff said.

Along with the high cost of entrance into the business, young farmers also face the problem of land availability.

Through its program FarmLink, the Farm Bureau connects young farmers with retiring ones, in hopes that a younger farmer will take over operations.

According to VanderWerff, the program provides beginning producers a chance while ensuring that farmland isn’t lost to developers.

However, VanderWerff said that the program has limitations and may need help from the state.

“There are a lot of young people that would like to get their hands on those operations,” VanderWerff said. “But for the retiring farmers there isn’t really an incentive.”

VanderWerff said that giving incentives to retirees would help keep the agriculture industry strong for generations.

While some young farmers get their start through such programs or transfers of family farms, others begin through local ties.

Jay Williams, who raises corn and soybeans in Hillsdale County, got his start in 2004 through a neighbor.

Williams gradually earned land by working on his neighbor’s farm, gradually building a base to become competitive.

“It would have been much more difficult if I didn’t have a neighbor that was willing to give me a try and allow me to enter the business,” Williams said.

Williams said that learning from other farmers allowed him to succeed, adding that it’s critical the state encourage young farmers to stay.

“To have a segment of the society involved in agriculture is a great way to retain young talent in the state and keep knowledge in the state,” Williams said.

According to VanderWerff, the Farm Bureau has seen an increase in membership of newer farmers like Williams.

“Young farmers help put a face to a plate,” VanderWerff said. “ They show a farmer behind the food.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.




Filed under: Agriculture

Wine tasting, sales could expand to farmers markets

Capital News Service

LANSING — Farmers markets and wineries are lifting their glasses to toast a bill that would promote wine sales.

The sponsor, Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, said that allowing tasting and sales of wine at farmers markets would give customers more access to wineries that are off the beaten path.

The legislation would authorize a special license for Michigan-owned wineries.

Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council program director Linda Jones sees the bill proposal as part of the natural evolution of market access that wineries face.

“Michigan wineries are looking for places to promote their product, and the traditional places where wine is sold are the retail store and the restaurant,” she said.

“With the tremendous growth of farmers markets in past years, it’s become more apparent that there’s an opportunity to capitalize on the interest in buying local in the farmers market environment with wine,” she said.

The Michigan Farmers Market Association has worked with unsuccessful legislation in the past and director Dru Montri said that allowing wine to be sold at farmers markets is a priority for the association.

She said that Hansen’s bill will require careful review and comparison with other states that allow wines sales at farmers markets, like New York and Iowa.

She added that emphasizing the proposal’s impact on small business development and entrepreneurship could help it gain momentum in the current economic climate.

Stoney Acres Winery business manager Amy Gagnon said that although selling at farmers markets may seem appealing at first, wineries — especially smaller ones — must consider the costs involved.

Stoney Acres Winery is in Alpena.

She said her primary concern is the license fee for 20 nonconsecutive days at $25 per day.

“I think this is another way to put a tax in there because the government’s hurting and they realize the wine industry in Michigan is growing,” she said.

“I could have another tasting room that could be opened regularly that would only cost me $100 a year for another license. This would cost me $500 for 20 days. That’s expensive,” she said.

Advocates of the bill, such as Ludington Farmers Market coordinator Heather Venzke, say the measure would be a win-win for everyone because it would bring more public attention to local industries.

Two of the state’s 80 wineries are in Mason County.

Georgaphically, wineries are scattered from Blissfield to Berrien Springs to the Leelanau Peninsula to Cheboygan to Carsonville, with three in the Upper Peninsula.

“The more exposure that any local products, including wineries, get, the more business they get and the more people they employ,” she said.

Venzke said that if the bill becomes law, she will likely try to recruit local wineries to participate.

In the United States, Michigan ranks 13th in wine production. And with a growth rate of 10 to 15 percent a year, it’s one of the fastest-growing agriculture industries in the state, according to the council.

Michigan’s wineries produce more than 1 million gallons of wine, attract more than 800,000 tourists and contribute more than $300 million annually, according to council.

Hansen said that wine production will foster Michigan’s agritourism industry and secure the state’s position as a culinary destination.

“Every year our wineries are getting better. They’re learning more about the grapes that they produce, which means the better the product,” Hansen said.

“We are going to be big in wine, and if we can become big in culinary, marrying them together would be an absolute plus,” he said.

The bill is pending in the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Agriculture

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