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How Did We Get Here?

March 25, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Even in June, finding fresh Michigan strawberries remains a chore.

The first step, however, is to examine how we came to ship so much food produced in Michigan to places so far from home—and what it could mean if we again produced more for ourselves and our Midwest neighbors.

After all, even though Michigan is second only to California in its great diversity of crops, finding fresh Michigan strawberries in season at your nearest grocery store is a chore. That’s because big grocery retailers, which have consolidated into a few national and international concerns, buy only large volumes of fruit tough enough to be moved cross-country.

It wasn’t always like that, says Lee LeVanway, manager of the wholesale, farmer-owned Benton Harbor Fruit Market. Recently he compared the volume of Michigan and northern Indiana strawberries that moved through that market in 1952 with the amount that moved through it in 2008.

“More than 350,000 16-quart crates of strawberries were delivered to the market on one day in 1952—350 semi-loads,” Mr. LeVanway said. “This year, we’ve had less than 3,000 crates. We’ve lost 99 percent of our production not because we don’t grow good strawberries but because the chain stores won’t buy them.”

Since 1952, the total number of Michigan farms dropped by two-thirds, from 151,000 to nearly 53,000. Most that survived adjusted to the food industry’s drive for large quantities of low-cost food by getting bigger so they could fit into a mass-production system. The best bet for Michigan’s fruit and vegetable producers was to grow crops for processing companies that freeze, dry, can, and make juice from produce.

That’s a big reason why most of the $1.9 billion of higher-value fresh fruits and vegetables we eat in Michigan comes from other states and countries. Michigan produces premier fruits and vegetables, but our climate’s tender peaches and juicy apples, for example, are less able to stand up to thousands of miles of travel like fruit from drier climates like Washington and California. Michigan produce, therefore, mostly shows up in potato chips and apple juice, not in fresh market aisles. Fully 74 percent of Michigan’s fruits and 44 percent of its vegetables go into processed products.

That’s not a bad thing: Food processing has kept many thousands of acres of farmland in business and helped keep Michigan agriculture a driving economic force in the state, neck and neck with tourism as the state’s second-largest industries. In total, the state’s farm and food sector has an annual economic impact of nearly $64 billion .

But industrial agriculture forces are still pushing Michigan farmers, most at retirement age, off their land. Meanwhile, Michigan and other Midwest consumers are looking for tasty, tree-ripened peaches and beef and pork raised on nearby farms, but are having a difficult time finding such products.

1. Study Shows Michigan Agriculture and Food Economy Growing, ANR Communications, Michigan State University, January 21, 2008: http://www.anrcats.msu.edu/press/010108/012108_economicimpact.htm

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