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After the Fall

Community picks up apple, vegetable growers

January 30, 2003 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Brian Confer
  Sharon Steffens, farmer and founder of Rural Economic Agriculture Partners.

One of the richest fruit-growing areas of Michigan is a line of 800-foot hills north-west of Grand Rapids, where Lake Michigan breezes have blessed genera-tions with delicious apples and beautiful vegetables. Farms on “the ridge” also sit in the middle of one of the wealthiest metropolitan areas in Michigan.

Nearly half of the 400,000 households in the Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon area make more than $50,000 after taxes. But apple grower Sharon Steffens saw only financial panic three years ago when she looked around at the faces of her neighbors on the ridge. Family orchards with generations of labor and love invested in trees and soil were struggling to make ends meet. A flood of apples from China had pushed global prices so low that many families were giving up and selling out. Ms. Steffens, however, is a grandmother

who knows a thing or two about picking yourself up from a fall and trying a new approach. “The atmosphere was so depressed. I thought: ‘We have to do something for ourselves. We can’t wait for other people to do things for us.’” Thus was born Ridge Economic Agricultural Partners (REAP), a grass-roots group of 350 people in business, agriculture, and the general community who intend to prove there’s more than one way to sell an apple.

All Together Now
“The first thing we had to do was educate people in Grand Rapids that there’s a place called ‘the ridge,’” says Dianne Novak, a Michigan State University Extension agent in Kent County. She started working with REAPin 2000 after local townships, foundations, community groups, and businesses chipped in to help. Last year the group made regional consumer inroads when it completed the first annual “Fruit Ridge Country Market Guide.” It also has created an e-com-merce site for fruit ridge products <www.fruitridgemarkets.com>, and Ms. Novak is researching markets for a value-added, apple processing venture. All the while, REAP’s members have been meet-ing bimonthly, discussing everything from customer service to urban sprawl. These meetings led to a joint effort with the Michigan Small Business

Development Center at Grand Valle y State University. For 12 weeks last winter, farm entre-preneurs worked through a business development course tailored to agricul-ture called “Tilling the Soil ofOpportunity.” The center now is provid-ing follow-up assistance free of charge, says regional director Nancy Boese. Working with farmers is a new terri-tory for traditional economic develop-ment professionals, Ms. Boese says. “But it’s really identical to what we would do for manufacturers or retailers. It’s the same process, just different numbers.”

The Harvest
Can REAP keep orchards on the ridge? Sharon Steffens is encouraged not only by the new customers and business ideas that are enlivening the area. S h e ’s also heartened by a recent sur-vey in which metropolitan residents speci-fied “the ridge” as farmland they want to save. “I think things are looking up,” she says .

Contacts: Dianne Novak, Kent County Michigan State University Extension Agent, 616 - 260 - 2008 novakd@msue.msu.edu  ; Sharon Steffens, 616-784-2821; Nancy Boese, Small Business Development Center, 616-336-7370, gvbizinfo@gvsu.edu. For more information on the course “Tilling the Soil of Opportunity,”

Farmers Markets Bloom With Shoppers Seeking Fresh Food

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