Demand high, supplies tight for some Michigan-grown organic foods

By Wei Yu

Capital News Service

LANSING – Even during an economic recession, Karen Lubbers, an owner of the Lubbers Family Farm in Grand Rapids, Mich., faces the challenges of growing demand at her small organic farm, which sells beef, pork, lamb and eggs.

“Our sales increase every year,” Lubbers said. “We generally sell out of both beef and pork. During the summer months, we sell out of eggs regularly as well.”

The supply from Lubbers Farm is often hardly enough meet the demand.

Michigan State University Student Organic Farm. Photo: Wei Yu/Capital News Service

According to Lubbers, its pigs are fed whey from the creamery on her farm. Whey as an animal food source is hard to come by which automatically limits the supply.

Rachelle Bostwick, founder of Earthkeeper Farm in Kent City, Mich., said if she could grow more organic crops, markets would buy them. Fruits and berries seem to be most in demand.

“Last season, as hopefully this season, we could not grow enough to keep up with demand from the wholesale market and community-supported agriculture,” she said.

According to Director Keith Creagh at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the state’s organic market hasn’t been hurt by the recession. Rather it still grows by 3 to 7 percent annually.

Many farmers and experts expect the organic industry to remain strong in coming years, assisted by increased public consciousness of environmental and potential health benefits.

“Compared to other agriculture, the sale of organic food is stably growing under weak economic conditions,” said Vicki Morrone, an outreach specialist at Michigan State University Extension.

Morrone said the stable organic market is partially due to people’s concern for their health. For example, baby boomers are becoming older and are affected by illnesses that may be related to nutrition and food quality.

“People try to get the best food possible. Organic food has less toxic chemicals, so it’s safer for them,” she said.

Morrone said the younger generation is also concerned about the environment. They see a need to pay attention to climate change and the knowledge of what pollution can do to the environment, Great Lakes and food production.

Morrone said upcoming farm legislation in Congress would further promote organic agriculture and research.

She said a 2008 federal farm law “has made a big difference in research in terms of having a better understanding of organic systems. It has also reflected the human perspective of wanting to understand how we can be more friendly to our environment and agriculture.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michigan ranks 11th in the number of organic farms and in the value of organic sales.

Despite the demand, organic products still account for a small percentage of food produced, even though the growth has been phenomenal in the past dozen years, Morrone said.

“In the Northeast, there is not enough organic milk on the shelf. In the Midwest, organic grains for animal feeds are more in demand than supply,” she added.

John Hooper, president of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance, said low supply and high demand are related to accessibility.

For example, Michigan has experienced a great expansion in the number of farmers’ markets, Hooper said. “Five years ago, there were 75 and today there are more than 300, so local food is becoming much more accessible.”

He also noted that supermarkets are selling more organic foods. “That is wonderful, not only because most people buy their food in supermarkets, but it is also showing people the products, displaying it, having it available.”

Hooper said many more farmers are growing organic produce and prices are coming down considerably because the costs of production and labor are dropping.

The Michigan State University Student Organic Farm in Holt, Mich., is a certified organic year-round teaching and production farm.

“Our main customer is community-supported agriculture, an alternative, locally-based socio-economic model of agriculture and food distribution,” said Dan Fillius, the farm’s production manager.

“People who are members of community-supported agriculture buy in advance and then we provide 10 to 12 vegetables a week. Members of our community-supported agriculture can receive locally grown, organic vegetables for 48 weeks of the year,” he said.

“We are busy all the time,” Fillius said. “Our waiting list is just as long as the number of people that we have in our community-supported agriculture. There are 100 people that would like to have community-supported agriculture shares that don’t.”

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