Michigan Produce: Caters to Bevy of Outlets

Michigan ApplesPhoto Courtesy of Michigan Farm Bureau

The state’s farmers serve both national and local markets.

Every summer and fall, Michigan farmers harvest the most squash and pickling cucumbers in the nation, according to the state Farm Bureau, along with 70-plus percent of the tart cherries and 20 percent of the sweet cherries, and nearly a third of the blueberries eaten nationwide, second (barely) behind only Georgia. The state’s farmers also harvest significant tonnage of cabbage, carrots, celery, onions, peaches, pears, plums, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, sweet corn and tomatoes, and the largest crop is potatoes. More than 300 commodities make Michigan second only to California in the diversity of its agriculture.

Michigan farmers serve as an important cog in the national and continental supply system, a supplier to Gerber, Vlassic and other processors, and as a valued source of locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Chicago’s Local Flair


Photo Courtesy of Michigan Farm Bureau

When Econofoods’ produce manager Jim Weber steps out front of the Iron Mountain store, which is in Michigan, he can look to the North, West, and South and see Wisconsin.

The difference of a few blocks matters when Weber sources and merchandises fresh fruits and vegetables for Econofoods, a small chain owned by SpartanNash, with stores in both Michigan and Wisconsin. “We have customers at our Michigan stores who want apples from Michigan, and customers at our Wisconsin stores who want apples from Wisconsin,” says Weber.

According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan produces nearly a billion pounds of apples, worth more than $140 million, on nearly 40,000 acres owned or leased by 900 farmers. [This is the farm gate price, which is much lower than wholesale; and the figures include apples for processing, which are much cheaper than fresh market]. “The fresh market apples have been strong,” says Kevin Robson, horticulture specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau in Lansing, MI. “The almighty Honeycrisp has taken hold here, as it has elsewhere.”

Apples and some other tree fruits are almost all the way back in their recovery from the devastating freeze of 2012. “There was a very warm March, and then it froze in May,” says Robson. “We had about 10 percent of a normal apple crop. Cherries were very similar. The specialty crop markets the last three years have continued to recover, but we’re still recovering.” Regional pride and a desire to support local farmers run strong in this area with the rich agricultural tradition of the Midwest, as evidenced by the state ranking third in the country in the number of Farmers’ Markets, according to the Farm Bureau.

rice lake beetsFor some crops, like asparagus, local extends at least as far as Chicago and a little beyond. “Historically we shipped to Michigan and the surrounding states,” says John Baker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board in Dewitt, MI. “Chicago is a big market, and Cleveland. We think it helps to use the Michigan name at least in the surrounding states. Chicago certainly sees us as local.”

Michigan asparagus farmers have slowly increased their acreage and harvest tonnage to reach the coveted No. 2 spot nationally. “We get about 22 million pounds of asparagus now,” says Baker. “We’re now No. 2 in the nation, just ahead of Washington and behind California. We have been on a very slight increase.” Much of the state’s asparagus harvest, which comes in May and June, never travels more than a few miles beyond the state lines.

“I think the retailers consider 200 to 250 miles from us here in Hart Township to be local; it’s not a hard and fast rule,” says Aaron Fletcher, sales and logistics associate at Todd Greiner Farms in Hart Township, MI. “Asparagus is a large item for us, and pumpkins.” Greiner’s other major fresh market items include zucchini, hard squash, corn and apples. This asparagus is also considered local at the Michigan and Wisconsin stores of Econofoods. “We do get Michigan asparagus, and we get Michigan apples now that Spartan has taken over,” says Weber. “It’s all about trucking.”

For some crops, however, like apples and potatoes, Weber sources from different farmers in different states depending on the location of the store. “We have our own local potato guys,” says Weber. “On my ads for 10-pound Russet potatoes it will say Michigan or Wisconsin on the ad. Our three Wisconsin stores will have Wisconsin potatoes, and our three Michigan stores will have Michigan potatoes.” Potatoes are the No. 1 produce item in the state, at more than $160 million in farm gate value, according to Michigan Department of Agriculture statistics.

Vegetable production in general has remained generally stable over the past five years, according to USDA statistics. “It appears, from an acreage standpoint, that production has been pretty stable among the main vegetable commodities,” says Kif Hurlbut, deputy regional director of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service-Great Lakes Regional Office in East Lansing, MI.

todd greiner

Todd Greiner, owner of Todd Greiner Farms

Superior Sales of Hudsonville, MI, ships a full line of vegetables — from acorn squash and asparagus to turban squash and turnips — and enjoys support from customers close to home. “Anything within a two or three state area the locally grown appeal really helps,” says Randy Vande Guchte, president of Superior Sales. “We get good support. It’s really gotten stronger the last five years, but some retailers always carried the local produce. We have a number of things we get local support for; we ship just about every vegetable.”

Michigan farmers and shippers find support as the local providers of fruits and vegetables that are gaining favor through national trendsetters. “Anything you see on the Food Channel, you get a little bump in sales,” says Vande Guchte. “Right now Butternut and Spaghetti squash are very much in demand. Right now it’s an item like kale.”

Another trendy produce item out of California that has taken root in this Midwestern agricultural powerhouse is locally grown organic greens. “We carry local organic from small farmers, like spring mix and other vegetables,” says Weber. “We will have a special section for our local farmers. We’ll put a sign out, and maybe pictures of them. Definitely, customers like that.”

Farmers and shippers find that the Michigan name matters to consumers over an area that extends into neighboring states. “We build the Michigan name into what we are selling,” sales Rick Sible, sales and business development manager at Rice Lake Farms in Grant, MI. “We are located within 500 to 600 miles of a large part of the population of the U.S. We do a lot in Chicago.”

There is, in the heart of the industrial Midwest, an appeal that comes with driving by the farms that hug the Great Lakes. “I was at the Pure Michigan Ag event in Kalamazoo and it is huge,” says Sible. “People drive by and see beauty, and they see farms. We are close to Lake Michigan and that’s a huge plus because of the moisture we get, and because we don’t get the frigid temperatures. Thanks to advanced farming methods, we’re able to get good yields.”

Michigan As A Regional Hub

DeWaard and Hodges

(L-R) Todd DeWaard and Tylor Hodges of Superior Sales

While much of the summer fruit and vegetable harvest is merchandised within the state, or nearby urban areas, Michigan farmers also play a key role serving markets in most of the country and across the border in Canada. “The distance it gets shipped depends on market conditions and quality,” says Todd Van Solkema, chief executive of Van Solkema Produce in Byron Center, MI. “We have shipped as far west as California. I would say more consistently as far west as western Texas.”

This family farm that began when Dutch immigrant Gerrit Van Solkema rented a piece of ground to farm in Western Michigan in 1896 – he would purchase his first 300 acres seven years later – grows and ships a full range of vegetable crops. “We do some packaging and repacking here at our Michigan facility,” says Van Solkema. “Also, our growers pack for us. We distribute from Michigan during the summer season.”

Van Solkema experiences a general uptick in demand for many of the key produce items coming out of Michigan this time of year. “Do we have higher volume on some fruits and vegetables? Yes,” he says. “Corn, cukes, squash, celery, cabbage, and pepper are a few of the major staples. Coming from a company that distributes and consolidates the full line of fruits and vegetables from Michigan, they are all important to us.”

Most of the larger grower-shippers send much of their produce to the East Coast, Canada, or other markets beyond the state line. “We do more outside of Michigan than inside, and that’s generally true of the larger operations,” says Sible from Rice Lake Farms.

Rice Lake Farms finds markets nationwide for specialty root vegetables grown near Lake Michigan. “We ship from coast to coast,” says Dave Cook, sales manager at Rice Lake Farms. “Once in a while we go to L.A. and Portland; it’s usually to the Bronx, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. Root vegetables are our mainstay. Parsnips are our No. 1 product. We’ve been doing well with gold beets and candy stripe beets. We get a better margin because not everybody grows them.”

Cook and Sable

(L-R) Dave Cook and Rick Sible of Rice Lake Farms

Some of the state’s fresh produce is lightly processed and then shipped around the country. “There are companies in Michigan that ship fresh apple slices from Las Vegas to New York,” says Robson. “We definitely export a lot out of the state.” Some Michigan growers have a wide distribution network that covers everywhere north of the equator in the Western Hemisphere. “Our apples are shipped throughout North and Central America including the Atlantic islands,” says Dave Distel, chief executive and president of produce distribution operations at Heeren Brothers in Comstock Park, MI. “Our general produce and distribution businesses distribute in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. It is marketed as from Michigan when applicable.”

There are expanding regional markets for organic produce coming out of Michigan. “Apples are definitely important, but so are lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, potatoes, citrus, berries, and organics,” says Distel. “Apples, organics, tomatoes and lettuce are increasing for us. Organics is a key area for growth.”

One-third of Michigan’s agricultural production is shipped out of the country, according to the Michigan State Farm Bureau, and most of that goes across the border to Canada. Even grower-shippers who rely on strong support from the local population also find important markets in most of the rest of the country. “We ship to the eastern half of the United States,” says Vande Guchte from Superior Sales.

The state’s asparagus growers, while enjoying a strong locally grown market, also find their harvest in demand over an even larger area than before. “We are going out east and further south,” says Baker. “This year we will go to pretty much every state east of the Mississippi.”

Michigan’s Fresh Produce Gains Traction

Much of the Michigan fruit and vegetable harvest is canned, jarred or frozen before it ever reaches the supermarket. “We are home to Gerber, Vlassic and all the other pickle companies,” says Kevin Robson, horticulture specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau in Lansing, MI. “A lot of our specialty crops go into processing.” The state’s farmers harvest 177,000 tons of pickling cucumbers, which leads the nation.

A significant amount of the early summer asparagus harvest, too, is processed, rather than sold as fresh. “Last year was the first year fresh asparagus, for example, outperformed the processing asparagus,” says Robson. “Our fresh market continues to be strong.” Michigan is, by far, the largest producer of tart cherries in the country, and nearly all of these are processed before they are shipped to supermarkets.

“The cherries, the Montmorency tarts, don’t go to the fresh market,” says Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer at the Cherry Marketing Institute in Lansing, MI. “Michigan produces 60 percent of the tart cherries, and less than one percent are sold fresh,” says Manning. “The majority go first to frozen. They are picked in June or July and frozen. Then they go to dry, juice or stay frozen.”

Even the very small portion of tart cherries that are sold fresh are usually not merchandised as coming from Michigan. “Very seldom will you see the name of any state on the display of tart cherries,” says Manning.

The Michigan farmers who grow tart cherries have deftly pivoted toward new markets as consumer preferences have changed from wanting pies, which used to use most of the crop, to looking for healthier snack options. “When the Cherry Marketing Institute was formed a decade ago, most of the cherries went into cans, and most of them later went into pies,” says Manning, who has been with the institute since its inception.

“Americans’ diets changed. We are eating less sugary desserts like pies, so the Michigan cherry growers repositioned from pie cherries to a superfood,” says Manning. “Pie cherry is probably less than 20 percent of the tart cherries. Cherries are one of the top superfoods.”