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From Farm to Table to… Poor House

Patrick Sullivan - January 30th, 2012  
Small farmer finds organic agriculture to be a tough business

The farm market at Farm 651, just south of Cedar in Leelanau County, in hibernation for winter.

Small-scale, locally grown organic food is what Northern Michigan is all about these days, right?

Everyone from Mario Batali to writers for publications around the country tout the region’s burgeoning reputation as being home to great farms, great food, great wine and great restaurants.

But when it comes to making a business in organic farming, Jason Roggensee, owner of Farm 651 just south of Cedar, says Northern Michigan is much less friendly than it would seem.

It is a struggle to make any money as an organic farmer in Northern Michigan, he says, as entrepreneurs in the industry face a bewildering patchwork of township and county regulation. Add in taxes and consumers who may talk up organic food, but who are unwilling to pay a premium for it, and organic farming begins to look like a recipe for bankruptcy.

The Express sat down with Roggensee and talked to him about his struggles, the nonprofit organic education center he is working to establish, and how he and his wife, Junie, decided to relocate from Arizona to a small farm in Leelanau County.

NE: What are some of the challenges facing an organic farmer in Northern Michigan?

Roggensee: I think the biggest challenge would simply be the pure economics of making farming work on a small scale. When you factor in the cost of the land, the taxes on that land, your agricultural equipment, your implements, your fertilizer and everything else, it’s really, really difficult to create a product that would be affordable to your average consumer. I’d say that would be the biggest challenge facing organic farming in Northern Michigan.

NE: Who buys organic food in Northern Michigan?

Roggensee: I think there’s two sides to that. I think if you were to ask 10 people, 10 people would probably say they would love to purchase organic products, they would love to try to implement as much organic as they could into their everyday meal selection. But I think there’s a big difference between what people are trending towards in organic versus what they are actually willing to pay for in organic, and I think given the option of a two dollar melon at Meijer’s, or a seven dollar organic melon from a vendor like me, I think nine times out of 10 individuals are going to go with the two dollar melon at Meijer’s.

NE: It sounds like you think there is a vast difference between the ideal and the reality.

Roggensee: Exactly. I think that it’s almost a topic of conversation among friends, about the organic food they are buying for their families, the salads and all the other things, and how pesticides are harmful and everything else, but when it actually comes to brass tacks of paying for the benefits of organic, I think there’s a big discrepancy between what people say and what they actually do.

NE: What can the organic food community do to make itself more viable?

Roggensee: I think the problem with the organic food community comes in the business model that’s being utilized. ... I really have my doubts as to whether the prices of truly locally produced organic foods could ever come down to a point where the locals in those areas can afford it. I really think that it needs to be more of a project whereas the individuals consuming that food are producing that food. ... I think it needs to be a community interested in producing organic foods and does so more in a garden kind of setting. I think that’s really the only way you are going to see widespread implementation of organic principles.

NE: What about the model where people purchase shares of a season’s crops, which I think you participated in last year?

Roggensee: Yes. Last year we had our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program for the first time and our program was set up in such a way whereas people would purchase points and they could come to our store and basically buy whatever they wanted with the points. ... We’ve since learned that that is not necessarily something that we can do and still be profitable or even come close to covering our own costs. With that CSA program, as a consumer, I would expect that if I come to market at any given time, I’d have a bountiful array of things to chose from and that’s what we did our best to deliver, but truthfully there was not enough demand for those organic items and specifically people didn’t want to use up their point allocations on things that they deemed to be more expensive than their grocery store. So they would buy some of our specialty items, like our pies and our cakes and our cookies and those kind of things, but the produce didn’t really sell. And with that being said, we ended up discounting it to such a point where we were losing sometimes 50 to 60 percent of what we paid for it. So we are not going to be having the CSA program in the same form this year. We’re still trying to figure out how we can modify it to make it a little bit more viable.

NE: But there are some businesses – many restaurants and a grocery store like Oryana – that buy organic vegetables from a grower like you.

Roggensee: Oh, yes. Very much so. And would really compliment places like Oryana and some of the local restaurants that I know are purchasing. I think La Becasse and Funistrada and some of those places make a real effort to purchase organic from the local farmers, but in a situation like a restaurant they can afford to pay a little bit more for the product, because the food they prepare is obviously not sold at cost, they have quite a bit of margin and mark-up. So, you can make some amount of economic sense out of that particular model. Oryana has a lot of walk-through traffic everyday, they’ve spent years trying to build that client base, and chances are they’re going to get enough foot traffic in and out of their store with enough people who are organically minded that they can move that product and cover their expenses. I don’t have that kind of foot traffic.

NE: Organic food aside, I understand some of your troubles stem from just being a small business struggling to deal with obstacles thrown up by township and county officials.

Roggensee: We’re constantly befuddled by the bureaucracy that seems to strangle Northern Michigan. The township government, the county government, just all the different permits and processes and everything else that’s required. We were told earlier this season that we would need to install a $25,000 hood in order for us to sell donuts out of our market. I mean, you don’t have to be a math genius to figure out how many donuts you have to sell in order to make financial sense of a $25,000 range hood. I mean, it’s just ridiculous. Two months later they approve a roadside taco stand that’s frying meat in their garage with no hood. I’m absolutely thrilled that this individual was able to get the zoning approval for that, but it just didn’t seem as though there was any kind of consistency or any kind of common sense fairness to it. So as an outsider coming in, I sometimes feel as though that is an incredibly difficult hurdle to overcome and it doesn’t necessarily make me feel welcome sometimes.

NE: Tell me about the nonprofit farm education program you want to establish.

Roggensee: Our original plan has always included making the Farm 651 land available to students and nonprofits. To realize this goal, we created the 651 Project. Students will have the ability to live and work on a functioning farm. Housing will be provided and product sales, produce and fruits, via farm markets and the onsite retail facilities will serve as a living cost stipend to students. We are trying to form relationships with local farm suppliers so that we can provide them with advertising and product exposure and in exchange, they can offer the latest tools and equipment for our students to maximize productivity and learn on new, modern, and efficient equipment.

NE: What’s your background? I understand you’re from Arizona. How did you get into organic farming and how did you wind up in Leelanau County?

Roggensee: By trade I’m a real estate broker, I also have a construction background. In Arizona, prior to our move, that’s what I did, I operated a real estate brokerage, I specialized in property management. When we moved here, it was based off of a vacation that we took in 2008, we did the Harvest Stampede and the LP wine tour, and we were just really sort of captivated by the beauty. We had no farming experience to speak of, and it was just a gigantic leap of faith, I guess.

NE: What kind of support have you gotten as a rookie farmer in Leelanau County?

Roggensee: From a support side I would really, really whole-heartedly endorse the MSU Extension office, the courses and the educational products that they have available are really, really impressive. And a lot of the individuals that you will find at the Leelanau farmers’ markets, they’ve all been really, really receptive to sharing their ideas, and what the do’s and don’ts are. Even as far as the individual who helped us build our facility, his name is Mark Poineau of North Haven Construction, he’s just been an incredible resource for us in terms of trying to make some local connections. The companies that he endorses, just going out of his way to plow our drive when he drives by and notices that it’s too high for our vehicles to get out. I mean, that’s something that we really, really appreciate about the area. It’s not something we were used to, coming from Arizona.

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