Stories from the Field: Growing Organic Fruit In Michigan
November 1st, 2012
Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place. In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without funding. This post is part of our 10-week blog series that features both program facts and stories from the field of those farmers and communities that are impacted by expired farm bill programs. To read this week’s earlier post on organic production and certification, click here.
By Chris Bardenhagen, Board Member, Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance
My family’s farm in northern Michigan is situated near Lake Michigan and is part of the microclimate where tart cherries are grown. It has been in the family since the late 1800’s, and cherries and potatoes have been grown on the farm as far back as anyone can remember.
Coming back to the farm after college, I started to investigate organic agriculture. I was particularly interested in the soil management aspects of organic. I began raising chickens for meat – about 1,000 a year – and experimenting with organic management of hay and field crops.
I set out to learn as much as I needed to know to begin producing organic tree fruit on our farm. Organic tree fruit production in the Midwest is a challenge, to say the least, and so I found myself knee-deep in research papers and attending many organic educational programs. Members of the Midwest Organic Tree Fruit Association usually hosted the programs that I found most useful.
My father and I decided to try to transition one of our tart cherry orchards to organic. We were able to utilize the hay and straw from my field crop acres for mulch and for nutrient management in the orchard. Although we experienced quite a learning curve, the effort was successful. That’s how we began the process of transitioning more cherries to organic. The first orchard is now certified organic, and the rest of the tart orchards are eligible to be certified in 2013.
The largest part of the expense for our transition came in the first few years. The inputs for organic use, such as compost, OMRI-approved foliar applications, and other soil amendments are all very expensive relative to the conventional management inputs. Between the more expensive organic inputs, retrofitting equipment, and increased labor, we spent easily twice as much per acre as years before, and were selling the product at conventional prices (no price premium for transitioning cherries!). That was the case even with utilizing resources that we already had on the farm, including equipment and the mulch.
At three years into the process, another cost came along: organic certification. At this point in the transitioning period, it is even harder to come up with another significant chunk of money, in addition to the time required to conform to recordkeeping requirements. This is where the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program is perhaps at its most welcome — the first year of certification.
Through networking with organic farmers to learn how to manage crops organically, I became a board member of Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA), a volunteer organization that promotes organic farming and policy in Michigan. In 2010, MOFFA became aware (through NSAC and National Organic Coalition) that the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) was not going to be able to continue to administer the cost share program due to unprecedented budget constraints and staff layoffs. MOFFA was able to successfully work out an arrangement with MDA to keep the cost share program in force, by aiding in its administration. MDA has continued to provide the cost share since that time.
The cost share program is an important catalyst for organic farming in Michigan. It provides a boost that helps farmers both to transition to organic and to remain certified. It comes at a welcome time for those farmers who are just becoming certified, and it is critical to farms staying certified when they are on the fence because of the size of their operation or their marketing strategy.
If the cost share program were to be lost, an important stimulant to organic transition would be gone. Additionally, many farmers would discontinue certification, which would have a negative effect on the marketplace. The less certified product out there to purchase, the less the zeal for eaters to insist on genuine organic produce.
We need to give a loud shout of support to our Representatives in Congress to keep this relatively inexpensive federal program funded and in force. As for our farm, it will provide a welcome, even needed, boost this coming year following the expensive transition process of our tart cherry orchards.
To help us fight for a better farm bill that includes funding for organic certification cost share, sign our petition and be prepared to take action when Congress returns to Washington after the elections!