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Rainy Spring Comes Home to Roost for Food Nonprofits

○ Less produce planted, late start to season and hot, dry summer impacting harvest

○ Milk, cheese surplus from Michigan dairy farms could be impacted by uncertain animal feed levels

○ Food banks, rescues looking to other states, trade mitigation subsidies to make up for declines

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency trade mitigation frozen and shelf-stable food subsidies put in place to help farmers in the wake of federal tariffs are helping offset the produce declines to some degree.

But there’s no indication of how long those subsidies will continue or what the coming weeks will hold for Michigan’s agricultural sector, given the hot, dry weather, the late planting of some crops and lack of planting fields that were wet too long to enable planting and give crops enough days to mature.

“We are hearing troublesome news on many fronts for our farmers,” Knight said.

“When we get to the fall … we don’t think the yields will be as high for the crops that were planted.”

The crop shortages could also impact future dairy donations, because food shortages could affect milk production. Milk and cheese subsidies have been buoyed significantly this year by the trade mitigation program, but there’s no saying how long that will remain in place, Clark said.

“The ability to grow enough feed for our dairy industry will be … a setback for our industry if they’re not able to do that,” Knight said.

According to a USDA report released last week, farmers nationally were unable to plant crops on more than 19.4 million acres of land around the country, due to this year’s wet spring. That was up from just under 2 million acres last year.

Almost three-quarters of the land that couldn’t be planted is in 12 Midwestern states, where heavy rainfall and flooding this year prevented many agricultural producers from planting mostly corn, soybeans and wheat, the USDA said.

In Michigan, 17.3 percent of farmland was not planted this year, compared with the national average of 7 percent, Joel Johnson, the state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, told a joint panel of the House and Senate Agriculture committees last week, according to a Gongwer News Service report.

Detroit-based Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan — the largest food bank in the state by the number of people served — depends heavily on produce donations from farmers in Michigan and surrounding Midwest states, said COO Julie Beamer. About 43 percent of the 1.4 million Michigan residents who don’t know where their next meal is coming from live in Southeast Michigan, according to the Food Bank Council.

Last year, operating on a $20 million budget, Gleaners distributed 43 million pounds of food, including almost 19 million pounds of produce. About 6.6 million pounds of the vegetables and fruits was donated by or purchased at low rates from Michigan farms.

Produce normally harvested by this point, from peppers, melon and corn to cabbage and collards, is 10 days to two weeks behind, Beamer said. And the size and quality is inconsistent. Early cabbages coming from Michigan farms, for example, are ranging from the typical basketball-sized to softball-sized.

The produce Gleaners was able to distribute between January and July this year was down 15 percent to 20 percent or 1.5 million pounds, Beamer said. That’s after an influx of 1.5 million pounds of food from the USDA’s trade mitigation program, which is buying up surplus from farmers affected by the trade war.

“Had we not had those sources, distributed through Feeding America … and others, we would have been down 3 million pounds,” she said. “So it’s helped alleviate things, but not filled the gap.”

Beamer projects there will be less produce available for the rest of the season, since some fields were never sowed. That is putting more
financial pressure on farmers, which is affecting their ability to donate produce, she said. That’s translating to tighter supply and higher prices, particularly later in the growing season.

To make up for shortages, Gleaners is purchasing produce by the truckload from southern states and bringing it back to Michigan. The costs just to purchase the produce have added up to $225,000 so far this year, plus transportation costs, Beamer said.

Produce and fresh dairy are the top requests from food-insecure families, she said, and need was already outstripping emergency-provider distribution even before the produce shortages, she said. “We are working to try and plug the gap as best we can, but we obviously have only so many resources.”

To help fill the gap, Gleaners is appealing to its donors, with contributions made by Sept. 2 matched by the sponsors of its Hunger Free Summer campaign to ensure children from low-income families have food over the summer. Those sponsors include: Andiamo, Citizens Bank, Ford Motor Co., GalaxE Solutions, General Motors Co., Grand Traverse Pie Co. and Toni Wisne Sabina Foundation.

Forgotten Harvest

Forgotten Harvest’s produce rescues and distributions were pacing 10 percent behind, year over year, between May and June, said Chris Ivey, director of marketing and communications.

Last year, the food rescue distributed 41.5 million pounds of food last year to pantries, shelters and soup kitchens in the tri-county area. In addition to distributions through the Food Bank Council and rescues from grocery stores, it gets fresh vegetables and fruits from produce wholesalers like Mastronardi Produce near Leamington, Ontario; a handful of Michigan farms and its own farm.

It’s less reliant on securing produce directly from farmers than Gleaners.

“With our food rescue model, we are always having to adjust to availability of the goods we receive, and our food sourcing team works hard to ensure the food is as diverse and consistent as possible,” Ivey said.

Mastronardi, the Ontario greenhouse that provides it with surplus produce, was impacted by a lack of sun early in the growing season, Ivey said. But it was able to source produce from other places, and Forgotten Harvest is still getting the surplus, Ivey said.

Forgotten Harvest, which is operating an annual budget of about $9 million, has also grown its own produce since 2013. Ivey said that despite the wet spring — and thanks to drainage tiles in place on the property — it was able to plant nearly all of its 98 acres at Ore Creek Farm in Fenton, on land donated by Nora Moroun, the wife of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun and a former director on Forgotten Harvest’s board.

Crops this year include: potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, broccoli, cabbage, turnips, sweet corn, hot peppers, Brussels sprouts, melons, eggplant and jalapenos.

“We definitely were prevented from planting all of our crops according to our schedule, but our decision-making process is unaffected by consumer marketing, which gives us a little more flexibility,” farm manager Mike Yancho said in an emailed statement.

Given the timing of its plantings, Forgotten Harvest will need to harvest more of its produce all at once, he said. And it will be seeking volunteers later into the fall than normal to do it.

“We don’t believe at this time, we’ll have a shortage,” Ivey said. Things will just come in later than they normally do.

Feeding America West Michigan, a food bank serving all of west Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, sources the vast majority of its produce from Michigan farmers, said Mallory Weber, food acquisition manager.

Last year, the Comstock Park-based food bank distributed 26 million pounds of food to about 900 nonpro)t agencies, just under a third of it produce, Weber said.

This year, its sourced produce is down 28 percent or about 1.26 million pounds so far, she said.

“We get a lot of number twos, things they can’t sell at market, things that aren’t as pretty.”

It’s not yet clear what will be available in the coming weeks, President and CEO Kenneth Estelle said.

Like Gleaners, the west Michigan food bank has sourced some produce from other states at an additional cost of about $125,000 so far this year, Estelle said.

Even donated produce comes at a cost.

A truckload of donated produce from Alabama, Florida or Georgia would come at a cost of about $9,000-$10,000, including freight fees and $4,000-$5,000, on average, in “pick and pack out” fees paid to farms. Instituted four to five years ago, the fees help farms retain migrant labor by paying them more and employing them longer.

The same donated produce from Texas and Arizona runs about $10,000-$12,000 a truckload, Estelle said, noting produce donations from California cost too much to make them viable.

“We’ve done some of that … but the freight costs are really high. And we’ve been able to fill in with some of the trade mitigated (food),” he said.

The subsidized food aren’t apples to apples or the highly nutritious, fresh food sought during Michigan’s growing season. They’re apples to applesauce, largely made up of shelf-stable and frozen food. But they are helping fill the gap, Estelle said. “The timing is nice for a bit.”