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Summer Flowers, Winter Lettuce: Year-Round Success

But farmers lack state support for pioneering local-food greenhouse ventures

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Patty Cantrell
  Mark Elzinga used a greenhouse usually closed from October to March to provide 400 pounds of fresh produce a week to a hospital and several grocery stores in Kalamazoo.
KALAMAZOO—When Mark Elzinga, a third-generation farmer from Portage, Mich., met Donna McClurkan, he couldn’t stop wondering about her attempt to eat only food produced within 100 miles of her home, near Kalamazoo.

“Where does she get her lettuce in winter?” Mr. Elzinga recalled thinking about Ms. McClurkan. He said his next thought was: “We need to find a way to feed her.”

He then hit on a neat solution as he pictured Ms. McClurkan’s severely limited choices for local produce during Kalamazoo’s snowy winters: He could use his own 30 acres of commercial greenhouses to grow vegetables in the winter, when he wasn’t growing flowers for big-box stores, and make money by supplying the growing, year-round demand for locally grown food that now stretches far beyond committed “locavores” like Ms. McClurkan.

“We’re always looking for crops we can produce in the winter,” Mr. Elzinga explained. “The more space we have filled up, the more economical it is to produce everything.”

Mr. Elzinga is not alone. Many of Kalamazoo County’s approximately 60 other large-scale bedding-plant greenhouse operations are also interested in adding winter food crops to their March-through-September business of growing impatiens, petunias, mums, and other flowers, said Steve Yanni, Kalamazoo County Extension director. He is among many who believe that, with so much growing space “under glass,” Kalamazoo County could lead the way in adding “off-season” lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables to the wide range of products Michigan could put on Midwestern dinner tables.

But that requires more leadership and innovation than local and state officials have mustered so far to support entrepreneurs like Mr. Elzinga.

Even with distributors like Sysco Corporation and retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. moving away from California and Chinese farms and toward nearby growers for their fresh food, economic development planners and university researchers have yet to fully comprehend the job-producing potential such companies present to Michigan agriculture.

“Leadership is really lacking from our research institutions,” Mr. Yanni said of the near-complete absence of marketing and production information greenhouse growers need to get into the new regional food business.

Similarly, Governor Jennifer Granholm’s proposed 2010 budget offers no help. Her budget would cut the state agriculture department’s spending by 20 percent and halve funding for the combined work of Michigan State University Extension and the state’s network of agricultural research and experiment stations.

This cost-cutting move for a nearly bankrupt state government could also turn out to be an opportunity-cutting move. On-the-ground business planning and production assistance, which Extension educators provide, is essential to helping entrepreneurial farmers build regionally based fresh-food businesses. State agriculture department staff and programs are key elements, too: They help local officials solve food processing and distribution challenges and provide guidance on food safety and other regulations.

Pioneering Investments
In the meantime, entrepreneurial businesses like Elzinga and Hoeksema Greenhouses are pushing ahead on their own, pioneering new production and marketing practices. Mr. Elzinga, for one, says new tax incentives, grants, and research would go a long way toward helping commercial greenhouse growers get in the off-season growing game. But he said he didn’t feel comfortable waiting for local or state leaders to pay attention.

That is why he recently launched two major initiatives that he says will keep his business going and growing through tough economic times—and cold winters.

One is his $4 million investment in geothermal, solar, wind, and energy-efficiency technologies at his company’s 12-acre New Millennium Greenhouses site, one of four greenhouse complexes his company operates.

“We were watching gas prices go up every year, electricity prices go up every year,” he said. “We decided to take a chance; we’d seen it done successfully in Europe.”

So now solar panels pre-heat water that runs through 23 miles of in-floor pipe in his greenhouses, and a geothermal system boosts it to 120 degrees. Together, these renewable sources meet 80 percent of the site’s heating needs; 99-percent efficient natural gas heaters provide the rest.

Mr. Elzinga also invested in cutting his electric bills. Power from two small wind turbines run fans that pump air between layers of plastic, helping to insulate the greenhouses. A number of other technologies, like energy-saving curtains and high-pressure sodium lights, are part of his comprehensive efficiency package.

It’s a big investment. But it makes sense for the long term, particularly if his simultaneous work to cut energy costs and build revenues with new crops clicks. “If these alternative crops take off, then the (nine-year) payback is quicker,” Mr. Elzinga said of recouping his green-energy investment.

His second initiative is organic production. In a first for Michigan, four of the 12 greenhouse acres at his New Millennium site are now certified organic. The company is building a market niche in certified organic vegetable starts, which Meijer Inc. stores now carry in five states.

Mr. Elzinga and his crew are now spreading organic growing practices across the company’s total operation, after discovering their soil and plant-health-promoting benefits.

“Originally we did it for the money, not for the true love of organics,” he said. “But we’ve been converted.”

With his green energy and organic production investments underway, Mr. Elzinga launched his new local-food venture last fall, supplying Bronson Methodist Hospital and several grocery stores in Kalamazoo with about 400 pounds of fresh produce each week this winter. Next fall, he plans to increase his local-food production and, as he and his crew get better at it, his venture’s profitability. Come spring, when Michigan’s outdoor growers get going, he’ll go back to producing bedding plants, plus the new organic vegetable starts.

“I think local food will be good for our local economy and for the state,” he predicted. “Agriculture can replace some of those jobs we lost in the auto industry.”

Michigan’s New Market
Studies indicate that Mr. Elzinga has the right idea.

One study by MSU and the Michigan Land Use Institute, for example, found that selling more of Michigan’s fruits and vegetables into the burgeoning regional food market could net the state’s agriculture sector up to $164 million in new revenue and produce as many as 1,900 jobs statewide as farmers spend that new money.

That opportunity is available right now, according to Denis Jennisch, produce category manager for Sysco Grand Rapids, the $38 billion food distribution company’s hub for western Michigan and northern Indiana. Sales have soared for Michigan items since last year, when Sysco Grand Rapids began segregating Michigan apples, carrots, alfalfa sprouts, and other produce from non-Michigan sources. Sysco even created a new product code for Michigan produce so that universities, restaurants, and other buyers could select it easily.

Now other Sysco divisions are picking up on that success and starting their own local sourcing and branding, said Mr. Jennisch.

“Sysco Chicago is next,” he said of that hub’s plan for 2009. It will offer customers the opportunity to buy produce specifically from nearby producers in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The Chicago hub should do well: Sysco Grand Rapids’ trial 2008 effort tapped larger-scale Michigan producers already accustomed to wholesale marketing, moved 56,000 cases of Michigan-grown produce, and kept $1 million in the state’s economy, Mr. Jennisch said.

This year, the project will dig deeper. Sysco will also fill local-food orders with produce from farms that have yet to try wholesale marketing.

“We’re going beyond the normal base, reaching out to small and medium growers that haven’t been comfortable with this market in the past,” he said. “We’re willing to work with them if they want to grow in that direction.”

Big Investment, Big Opportunity
Growers like Mr. Elzinga and buyers like Bronson Hospital’s Michael Rowe, who decided to purchase off-season local food from Elzinga-Hoeksema, are just the start of a market that many more can enter.

“We spend $3 million a year on food,” Mr. Rowe observed. “Why not try and give all of that back to the community?”

His hospital is getting there. In its first year of buying locally, it put 12 percent of its food budget, or $366,000, back into the local economy through Elzinga-Hoeksema and 18 other local suppliers.

Mr. Elzinga is ready for more.

“Kalamazoo’s Borgess Hospital, Western Michigan University, and Kalamazoo College are all potential customers,” he said.

And now, with all of this entrepreneurial response to local-food demand, Donna McClurkan sees no problem finding Michigan lettuce during a Michigan winter, especially once local and state leaders get more involved.

“Over the course of my locavore year,” she said, “I gained a much bigger and broader appreciation for what we have here: Our local greenhouse industry, muck soil for crops like celery in Kalamazoo, the western Michigan fruit belt, water all around. We have so much. We can do so much!”

Patty Cantrell is program director for the Michigan Land Use Institute, where she has built northwest Michigan’s nationally recognized Taste the Local Difference program. Patty is also a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow focused on promoting local food and farming as a New Economy strategy. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

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