By ANGIE JACKSON
Capital News Service
LANSING – A staple food in high demand overseas continues to provide opportunities for Michigan organic soybean farmers, experts say.
Kathy Brockriede of Columbiaville and her husband own an organic farm where they grow soybeans, among other products. A portion of their crop has been exported to Japan for tofu over the years.
The Brockriedes, whose beans are sometimes combined with those of other local farmers for export, sell to a broker, who supplies it to Japan.
“We found that it’s a value-added niche,” Brockriede said.
And to make a profit in a niche like that, organic farmers must grow for a specified market like the Brockriedes do, said Dan Rossman, Michigan State University Extension farm management director in Gratiot County.
“You want to produce what people want and are willing to pay a value-added price for,” Rossman said, noting that Japanese buyers look to Michigan because they recognize the quality of its soybeans and prefer organic.
In 2008, Michigan’s soybean crop was valued at around $643 million according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA doesn’t keep separate statistics for organic crops.
Kathy Maurer, the financial and creative director of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee in Frankenmuth, said her organization helps develop relationships with Japanese buyers.
“We’re just starting to get our feet wet,” she said about its involvement with international markets. “There have been different countries that we’ve invited buyers from to tour the facilities and farms.
“With the relationship in Asia, it’s not just a business where they go after the cheapest bean. You have to form personal relationships,” she said.
Jamie Zmitko-Somers, international marketing program manager for the state Department of Agriculture, said organic soybean production for international markets isn’t booming yet, but it’s developing steadily.
“It’s not a super-large trend yet because of the economic slowdown worldwide, but it’s certainly something that will remain important,” she said.
Zmitko-Somers said international buyers choose organic products to ensure the identity and integrity of their products, noting that Michigan, especially the Thumb region, is well-known for soybeans.
In 2009, the top five counties for soybean production were Sanilac, Lenawee, Saginaw, Monroe and Gratiot, according to the USDA.
To ensure the quality that Japanese consumers desire, farmers can go through a detailed process to be certified under the Japan Agriculture Standard.
“It’s a very rigorous certification to put a label on the bag,” Brockriede said.
To meet Japan’s organic standards, she and her husband filled out a 17-page application, had their facility inspected for around $1,000 and took a four-hour class. They were also required to create and maintain an internal operating manual for their farm.
According to the Global Organic Alliance, the Brockriedes are among 17 Michigan farms certified by Japanese standards. Besides soybeans, farmers grow other products such as wheat, corn and barley.
It’s all well-worth it to Brockriede, who said their farm received $30 per bushel for soybeans last year, three-to-four times what they would have made selling the crop in the U.S.
“It’s a good market if you’re willing to jump through the hoops,” she said. “As a farmer, it’s about being able to receive an equitable price for our goods.”
Zmitko-Somers said Japanese consumers are willing to pay more for their organic products because they are typically health-conscious.
And Brockriede said nations like Japan serve as a model for valuing nutritious foods.
“People in other countries buy food to sustain their lives. Our food isn’t dear to us like that. If we really had to pay what our food was worth here, we wouldn’t buy Doritos,” she said.
“They’re way ahead of us.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.