State promotes Michigan-grown organic produce

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Marsha Maluchnik, owner of Evergreen Natural Foods Market in Ludington, carries a wide variety of fresh organic fruits and vegetables, but she says most of her produce comes from Arizona and California.
That is the case in most Michigan grocery stores, where consumers shopping for organic foods are likely to buy produce shipped from the Southwest United States.
Organic foods are grown free of chemical substances, such as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
Certified organic foods are produced in compliance with strict uniform standards, to be verified by an independent state or private organization. Certification requires inspections of farms and processing facilities, detailed record keeping and regular soil and water testing.
“There are quite a few local Michigan farmers out there who aren’t certified that advertise their produce is organic,” Maluchnik said. “I only sell certified organic produce.”
Michigan has an estimated 200 certified organic farmers.
Apples from Hackert Farms — a certified organic Ludington farm owned by Brian Hackert — are the only Michigan-grown products Maluchnik has offered at Evergreen.
“I carried two varieties of his apples last year and they sold very well,” she said. “He will be doing asparagus this summer and I hope to carry it if it is available.”
But stores like Evergreen cannot be found on every street corner. In fact, the state’s two largest natural foods retailers — Whole Foods Market, Inc. and Eden Foods — are located in southeast Michigan.
Whole Foods, based in Austin, Texas, has grown at an annual rate of 40 percent since 1991, and now has more than 130 stores nationwide — typically located in metropolitan areas. Its Michigan stores are in Ann Arbor, Troy, Rochester Hills and West Bloomfield.
Hackert, along with other Michigan organic apple growers, sells his fruit to Eden Foods in Clinton, where it is processed for juice and other organic products. Eden Foods then sells the finished product under its own label.
Meijer stores across the state carry imported organic produce, but produce team leader John Hendricks at the Ludington store said he hasn’t witnessed a huge demand for it.
“Most of the organic produce just doesn’t move very well,” he said. “I think people just aren’t aware of what ‘organic’ means — at least not enough to make them look for it.”
Hendricks said his organic display area is relatively small, which could make it easier for customers to pass it over.
In addition, many consumers report that organic produce is too expensive. But Hendricks said conventional and organic produce are often the same price at his store.
“People see a big display of red shiny apples and they’re sold,” Hendricks said. “Our current price for both organically and conventionally grown red delicious apples is the same, so price isn’t making a difference.”
But Mike Goerbig, manager of Prevo’s Family Market in Ludington, said price does have an impact at his store.
“We haven’t had a lot of requests for the products, so we’ve actually cut back some,” he said. “I think what hurts the most is that those products aren’t advertised on sale as much as others.”
Meanwhile, the Organic Trade Association reported that the organic industry has enjoyed a 20 percent annual growth rate nationwide for the past decade. Based on that rate, organic retail sales are expected to reach nearly $20 billion by 2005.
To advance organic production and processing, the MDA has appointed an Organic Advisory Committee to promote the value and importance of organic agriculture to the public and commercial markets.
The committee is promoting the following key advantages of organic farming, as documented by the United States Department of Agriculture:
Significantly reduce greenhouse gases by keeping nitrogen and carbon in the soil.
Reduce ground water contamination.
Produce yields comparable to conventional methods without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Christine Lietzau, MDA organic and sustainable agriculture coordinator, said the department is beginning an organic promotional program this year. The department received $200,000 from the USDA for the program.
“We’re trying to partner with the retail industry to encourage the use of locally grown products,” she said. “We will begin visiting grocery stores that have shown interest in the program, and then we’ll be able to determine what products the stores want and what parts of Michigan we should target.”
Lietzau said the department will also work to educate conventional farmers interested in converting to organic agriculture. The department estimates that available funding will support a two-year program.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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