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Michigan’s organic agriculture has followed the national trend, with acreage of certified crops more than doubling from 1997 to 2005. However, Michigan’s organic fruit acreage lags far behind, increasing only slightly during that time period, a recent state survey found.

A survey done in 2006 was the first statewide and comprehensive survey of organic agriculture in Michigan, said Dr. Jim Bingen, professor at Michigan State University and co-author of the survey report.

The aim of the survey, a collaborative project by MSU and the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance, was to identify opportunities for more fruit and vegetable farmers to participate in the growing market for organic
produce.

The report was based on organic agriculture data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, as well as the 2006 survey of Michigan’s certified organic growers and processors.

In addition to gathering acreage statistics, the survey also gained insight from wholesalers and brokers and fruit and vegetable farmers about their perspectives on organic produce.

Bingen, presenting the survey results at the Great Lakes Expo in Michigan last December, said that the survey confirmed the need for a Michigan-based biennial census of organic agricultural producers and processors because of the disparity between Michigan and USDA data. The baseline data will help guide research, advocacy, and policymaking.

Barriers

Close to a third of the Michigan fresh fruit and vegetable wholesalers and brokers doing business in the state handle organic produce, while another 40 percent are considering entering the organic marketplace, Bingen reported. About half of the current organic buyers and those considering entering the market are interested in buying organic produce grown in Michigan.

Although there is interest in buying locally, Bingen said that wholesalers and brokers have concerns about expanding their supply of organic produce from Michigan and the Midwest. The main barriers are insufficient volume, a short season, limited variety, small scale, and concerns about the appearance of fruits and vegetables that may be compromised because of pests and diseases, he said.

"One of the biggest barriers is the easy availability from California," Bingen noted. "The continued easy and relatively inexpensive availability of fresh organic produce from California trumps the interest of most intermediaries in sourcing local and organic produce from Midwestern farms."

Little interest

While produce buyers have concerns about Midwest organic produce, so do many of Michigan’s larger, conventional fruit and vegetable farmers, Bingen said.

His report stated that the growers who are large enough to supply wholesalers’ and brokers’ needs have expressed little interest in transitioning even part of their production into organic.

"Despite the increased global threats of cheap imported fresh produce to their production and marketing strategies, these farmers still do not accept organic as a viable alternative that could maintain or even enhance their livelihoods," the report stated.

Another issue is that many Michigan organic growers "decertified" or deregistered their organic status when the national organic standards were implemented, Bingen added.

The report outlined several recommendations that could bolster certified organic production of fruit and vegetables, including taking a census of organic producers and processors every two years, assessing whether certification and bookkeeping costs of the National Organic Program are creating a barrier for Michigan farmers, focusing research on soil fertility management, and developing resources to help farmers organize and collaborate in order to market and promote Michigan organic products.