New farming opportunities

Expanding locally grown food and organically produced food are two segments of the food industry that continue to see growth and consumer excitement.

Farmer’s markets are gaining more and more popularity in Michigan. They not only provide an opportunity for small and mid-scale producers to develop a strong, intensive farm business, but they also provide a way for consumers to build a bond or relationship with the farmers who grow their food. They provide communities with a great place for locals to meet and travelers to visit.

On-farm markets are reappearing across the state as well. Besides selling a diversity of production 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 most anything else. The Travel Michigan website even has added a new section for “foodie tours.”

Organic food is also maintaining a strong demand. According to the Organic Trade Association’s 2010 Organic Industry Survey, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009. Sales in 2009 represented 5.1 percent growth over 2008 sales. Organic food and beverages are still a very small part of the overall food industry, representing about 3.7 percent of the total in 2009. Many 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 only about 250 certified organic farms. In 2011, local organic producers can expect to receive $8.50 to $10 per bushel for corn, $18 to $22 per bushel for soybeans, and $60 per cwt for dry beans. There are numerous networks of organic producers including an active group in the Thumb region and mid-Michigan.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a marketing system that is also expanding in more populated areas. It is a subscription type concept in which the customers buy shares in advance, 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.

There is truly a wide range of options for people involved in agriculture today. Details about these niche opportunities and others are available at local MSU Extension offices, the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at the CARRS department at MSU, and at Michigan Good Food.

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