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Up North Fest Marks Organics’ Rapid Spread

Michigan reflects a growing national trend

August 28, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Sweetwater Local Foods Market

The Sweetwater Market, located in Muskegon, is the state’s first ongoing, organically oriented, seasonal farmers market. It’s part of a growing trend that a Labor Day festival in Bellaire will celebrate.

BELLAIRE, Mich. — Like any farmer, Ryan Romeyn is up at dawn doing chores, and he’s usually still at it as the vast sky around his East Jordan farm turns pastel pink in the evening, and then inky black.

Nonetheless, Mr. Romeyn, who manages the Wagbo Peace Center Farm, is different from most of his fellow growers. And at the first-ever Northwest Lower Michigan Organic FoodFest and Farmers Market, in Bellaire on Labor Day, area residents and visitors can meet farmers like Mr. Romeyn, who keep their plants healthy with natural fertilizers such as crumbly, well-composted manure rather than with synthetic or petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Even Mr. Romeyn’s hogs and chickens receive “special” treatment that is actually a throwback to an earlier era: They live in pastures and fresh air, not in the stifling small pens and cubicles typical of industrial farms that stock most mega-grocery stores and fast food joints.

The FoodFest — which will feature a wide array of locally grown, organically oriented products, a pancake breakfast made with certified, Michigan-grown organic grains, and lunches made with local, pasture-raised chicken — is a sign of growing interest among farmers and shoppers alike in how food is grown.

Nationally, certified organic foods may make up just 2 percent of the foods consumers buy, but they form the fastest-growing sector of the nation's food economy: Sales have grown between 17 and 21 percent each year since 1997, compared to only two to four percent for nonorganic foods, according to the national Organic Trade Association. Even local governments are becoming more interested. Woodbury County, Iowa, recently became the first county in the country to offer property tax rebates as a community economic investment tool to farmers who begin organic farming. County officials say they foresee promising farm jobs and economic spin-off activity.

The Labor Day food festival, located in this northwest Michigan village just east of Grand Traverse Bay and Torch Lake, joins three other organically flavored harvest and educational festivals started over the last five years in southeast, southwest, and west Michigan. There is also a brand new farmers market in Muskegon, Mich., that showcases organically-oriented farmers exclusively, all summer long.

“I think the festivals are just one avenue where we see growing consumer interest,” said Carol Osborne, a long-time board member of the nonprofit advocacy group Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA). “At every event MOFFA attends, we talk with people looking for organically grown or produced foods and asking about how and where they can find them.”

What: Northwest Lower Michigan Organic FoodFest and Farmers Market

When: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Labor Day

Where: Antrim County Farmers Market on M-88 in Bellaire, behind the senior center and across from the county courthouse.

Besides an extensive list of foods raised without synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and growth hormones, the one-day special market includes a certified organic pancake breakfast from 8 to 10:30 a.m., a chicken salad lunch with naturally raised local chicken from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p. m., music and children's activities, and an information booth.

Organic Is Hot
Mr. Romeyn, a soft-spoken 31-year-old father of three young boys, says the majority of families who buy his pork, chicken, and vegetables are seeking food that is grown without synthetic chemicals or raised in a humane manner. In all, about 100 area families buy a total of about 900 of his chickens each year, while 30 families pick up teeming boxes of garden produce from him each week.

“They say, ‘It is so nice that I can eat this on the way home and not have to worry about washing it, not have to think that a tomato has fungicide on it,’” Mr. Romeyn said.

How many consumers want organic food?

Nationally, 66 percent of consumers report using organic products at least occasionally, up from 55 percent in 2000, according to a 2004 study by The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Washington-based market research firm with a focus on health and wellness markets.

Similar statistics for Michigan are not available. But there are about 250 certified organic farms in Michigan, according to MOFFA. That’s compared to just six in 1973, when farms in the state first started being inspected by neutral, third party agencies for authenticity, says the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

And that doesn’t count the growing number of farmers, such as Mr. Romeyn, who say they grow using the principles of organic farming but have chosen not to go through the process of being certified. That’s partly because the majority of their customers know them well and don’t require it. Such farms often practice community supported agriculture (CSA), which asks consumers to pay in advance for a "share" of a season’s worth of food. There are at least 54 such farms in Michigan, according to www.CSAfarms.org, some of them certified organic, many of them not (and not all advertising themselves as totally synthetic chemical-free.) Nineteen years ago, there were only two known CSAs in the entire country.

A First for Muskegon and Michigan
Organically oriented farming is becoming more popular in other parts of Michigan, too. In July, for example, Muskegon became host to Sweetwater Local Foods Market, the state’s first season-long outdoor spot for farms that are either certified organic or that show convincingly, through an on-site visit by the market’s organizers, that they are not using synthetic chemicals, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, or growth hormones. The farmers must also show that their animals are raised outdoors on pasture in good weather and with adequate space and bedding indoors in bad weather. The market promotes itself with the slogan: “Healthy. Humane. Homegrown.”

The “homegrown” aspect ­is an element that many small and mid-sized farmers say was a foundation of organic agriculture before 2002, when the U.S. government set uniform national standards for growers who label their products organic. Now, these farmers say, large industrial farms can meet the standards and legitimately call themselves organic. But such large-scale farming often funnels local dollars to distant mega-farms instead of to nearby, entrepreneurial, small family farms that started the organic movement and keep money in their own communities.

And there’s always the issue of homegrown freshness. The organic food sections in major groceries, for example, are mostly stocked from large-scale farms in Mexico and California, said Chris Bedford, founder of the Sweetwater Market: “It has traveled thousands of miles. It means it is not fresh. And food degrades over time, even organic food.”

The Sweetwater Market, with about 10 farmers, already has a core following of about 300 regular customers, Mr. Bedford said.

“This is not a market driven by gourmet status and five-star recipe books,” he said. “People come to the market because they don’t want their food to have chemicals on them and they want it to be fresh so it is high in nutrients, and that means local.”

The one certified organic farmer who attends the Sweetwater Market says he makes more money there than he does at Muskegon's other, busier, but more traditional farmers market. He says it is because customers at Sweetwater value the way he grows his food and are willing to pay a higher price. So far, about a dozen farmers who don’t meet Sweetwater’s standards have asked how they can transition to organic practices and enter the market, Mr. Bedford said.

Friendly Competition
In Bellaire, even farmers who employ synthetic chemicals are supportive of the Organic FoodFest and Farmers Market, said Stan Moore, director of Antrim County MSU Extension. The first FoodFest will be located at the site of the regular Antrim County Farmers Market, which is a mixture of farmers who farm with and without synthetic chemicals. While only those who don’t use chemicals can sell at the FoodFest, the other farmers think the event will help all of them by making local residents and visitors aware of the variety of local farm products — including chemical-free — available in their community, he said.

And there’s quite a variety of farm products that people will be able to buy at the FoodFest: Poultry, beef, lamb, maple syrup, honey, eggs, cheese, milk, and a wide array of fruits and vegetables.

Ryan Romeyn will be there. And because he doesn’t keep his chickens trapped in tiny cages day and night, he has plenty of stories about his way of farming. Chances are, the night before the market, he might be so busy getting ready that he won’t notice the sun sinking in the sky.

And if that’s the case, he might be too late to easily shoo the chickens from the pasture back into their portable pen that protects them from predators at night.

“They will be bedding down, and you have to pick them up,” he said with a sigh.

Diane Conners, a former reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle who once managed a farmers market, is a writer and organizer for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture Project. Reach her at diane@mlui.org. For more information on the Institute’s Taste the Local Difference campaign, click here.

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