Alternative niche opportunities expanding

Locally grown food and organically produced food are two segments of the food industry that continue to see growth and consumer excitement. A January 19 meeting in Ithaca, Mich., will connect organic farmers to opportunities with Organic Valley.

Farmer markets are gaining more and more popularity in Michigan. These not only provide an opportunity for small producers to develop a strong intensive farm business, but it also provides a way for consumers to build a bond or relationship with where their food comes from. It provides communities a draw to the small towns where the markets may be operating.

On-farm markets are reappearing across the state as well. Besides selling a diversity of foods produced from their farms, some have added more attractions to draw people to their operations. These agri-tainment items include corn mazes, hay rides, bakeries and special events. Tourism and agriculture are actually being marketed together. Some producers are using direct sales to supply consumers with quantities of pastured poultry, grass-fed beef, brown eggs, maple syrup, corn for furnaces, Christmas trees, and many other locally grown products.

Community Supported Agriculture is a marketing system that is also expanding in more populated areas. It is a subscription-type concept in which the customers buy shares enabling them to receive a season-long supply of produce from the farm. The amount and variety of produce received is dependent on the season and success of the farm for that year. It gives the farmer early operational dollars and a known market. The customers get fresh produce weekly from a source they can connect with, but must also share in the risk of the weather and other production concerns.

Strong demand continues for organic foods. According to the Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. Sales in 2010 represented a 7.7 percent growth over 2009 sales. Organic food and beverages are still a very small part of the food industry, representing about 4 percent of the total in 2010. Conventional food companies have added lines of organic products and conventional retail stores are devoting floor space to organics. This is being driven by consumer preference and demand.

In Michigan, there are over 250 certified organic farmers. In 2012, local organic producers can expect to receive $10 to $12 per bushel for corn, $18 to $25 per bushel for soybeans, and $60 to $70 per cwt for dry beans. There are numerous networks of organic producers including an active group in the Thumb and mid-Michigan area.

Individuals interested in learning more about organic production and market opportunities are welcome to attend a program offered by MSU Extension and Organic Valley. Organic Valley is a farmer-owned cooperative that is looking for more organic farmers to meet their thriving and expanding organic market place. The meeting is on Tuesday, January 19, at the Gratiot-Isabella RESD Building at 1131 Center Street, Ithaca, Mich. (view map and directions), and will cover topics about pool pricing, market demands and grower experiences. The program will run from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with lunch provided. There is no pre-registration required.

There is truly a wide range of options for people involved in agriculture today. Details about these niche opportunities and others are available at localMSU Extension offices and the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at the CARRS department at MSU. MSU Product Center can provide assistance for entrepreneurs wanting to create new products and businesses in niche markets. Innovation counselors located across the state can offer support to farmers in these types of entrepreneurial ventures. For additional information, visit the MSU Product Center website.

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